Happy Place

25 Ways to Give Back to Aspen

Whether you’re a longtime local or an inspired visitor, it’s easy to make a positive impact on the place you love.

By Catherine Lutz Illustrations by Katie Leimbach December 30, 2020 Published in the Winter/Spring 2020–21 issue of Aspen Sojourner

When University of California psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky spoke virtually at the Aspen Institute last summer, she shared a key point from her years of quantitative research into how best to tap our potential for joy: acts of kindness make people happier. It was an appropriate venue to remark on how giving and connection breed happiness, as the Aspen Institute was founded on a similar concept: the Aspen Idea. Rooted in the cultivation of mind, body, and spirit to make a person whole, the idea is a philosophy of living and acting based on our common human connection.

“It’s important to be a participant in your community,” says Aspen Mayor Torre. “Being involved is a way you can exert a positive influence on your and your community’s way of life.”

With that in mind, here are 25 uniquely Aspen ways—big and small—to get involved, give back, and be a good citizen.


Live a low-impact lifestyle


1. Reduce, reuse, recycle. In Pitkin County, homes contribute well over one-third of local greenhouse gas emissions, according to local government reports. Since these atmosphere-warming discharges threaten the long-term viability of our local ski mountains, leaving the smallest carbon footprint possible could help keep winters long and snowy.

If you’re a homeowner, reach out to the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (aspencore.org) for guidance: the nonprofit’s team of experts will advise on efficiency rebates, conduct a home assessment, and provide energy-saving recommendations—and even guide you toward net-zero energy consumption. If you’re renting or lodging, choose a place that prioritizes the environment; the Aspen Meadows Resort (aspenmeadows.com), for example, recently transitioned to 100 percent clean electricity and eliminated all single-use plastics from guestrooms.

The City of Aspen (cityofaspen.com) also has robust recycling and composting programs, plus the Pitkin County landfill (landfillrules.com) sells finished compost and newly diverts and recycles construction waste. In fact, Pitkin County ranked first in Colorado for county recycling programs per a state report released in November 2020. To decipher recycling regs, check out the free local app: Love Zero Waste.

2. Ride the bus or pedal a shared bike. The valley’s local bus system, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (rfta.com), is the largest rural transit system in the United States. Take the free bus around Aspen and to Snowmass Village—frequent skier shuttles link all four mountains.

Come May, WE-cycle (we-cycle.org)—the country’s first rural bike-share system, now with 46 stations—is ideal for short trips around Aspen, Snowmass Village, and Basalt. Did you know that one mile pedaled instead of driven keeps one pound of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere?

3. Take the Aspen Pledge. Commit to exploring the local natural environment responsibly (aspenchamber.org/pledge), which includes minimizing social media location hashtags to avoid overburdening Aspen’s most beautiful places. The campaign, launched by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association in 2018, now embraces Pledge for the Wild (pledgewild.com), a consortium of mountain towns that supports conscious tourism and encourages donating to local conservation-focused nonprofits.

4. Think green with your time and money. Donate to or volunteer with one of the dozens of nonprofits in the Aspen area that focus on the environment or the outdoors. To name just a few: Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (aspennature.org), the 50-plus-year-old environmental science education center; Aspen Valley Land Trust (avlt.org), which works with private landowners to preserve wild and agricultural land; and Roaring Fork Conservancy (roaringfork.org), which helps protect local watersheds.

Become more hands-on

5. Build or maintain a trail. Two local nonprofits that depend on volunteers willing to get down and dirty are Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association (rfmba.org), a cycling advocacy group that also builds and maintains area bike trails, and Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers (rfov.org), which promotes land stewardship through trail and restoration projects.

But there’s more to do than wield a shovel or swing a pickaxe. At RFOV, opportunities for all ages and abilities include reseeding, coordinating projects as an ambassador, or serving on a committee.

It’s also a civic-enhancement platform. With hands-on projects, “people become stakeholders in the success of their community,” says Jacob Baker, RFOV’s communications and outreach coordinator. “Especially in a time of physical isolation, getting outdoors and participating in a stewardship project, you’re having a tangible impact.” Perhaps that explains why RFOV’s volunteer numbers were actually up in 2020—amid a pandemic and an extreme fire season—over the prior year.

6. Play with pets. Whether you’re here visiting or a local, get some animal therapy while helping the Aspen Animal Shelter (dogsaspen.com) by engaging with a dog and maybe even taking one for a walk, giving Fido more of the human interaction dogs need. Cat lovers can brush the felines or play with them in a dedicated area of the shelter.

7. Pick it up, and put it away. It merits reminding to keep the local environment as clean as possible. Pick up after your dog. Help keep the local bear population at bay by securing trash in bear-proof containers, not leaving food in parked vehicles, and closing and locking ground-level doors and windows overnight. Participate in spring cleanups in Snowmass Village (organized by the town), Basalt (put on by the Roaring Fork Conservancy), and Aspen—the annual Trash Crush started by local Erik Skarvan. Of course, picking up someone else’s detritus is a good thing to do any day of the year—and local dumpster divers can attest to the treasures found while recycling others’ castoffs.

Advocate for social justice

8. Teach someone English. It’s hard to integrate into a community without knowing the language. El Jebel–based nonprofit English in Action (englishinaction.org) tackles the barrier that many local immigrants face, and bridges cultural divides, through volunteers who tutor English learners one-on-one for at least six months, often developing lasting friendships along the way.

9. Support alternative solutions. Local nonprofit Manaus (manaus.org) takes a slightly different approach to philanthropy—forming equal partnerships with its beneficiaries to build long-term solutions. Several such projects have spun off into their own entities, including Valley Settlement, which serves immigrant families; Mountain Voices Project, a coalition for broad-based community organizing; and Carbondale’s Third Street Center, a renovated school building that houses nonprofits and small businesses. Manaus also developed an emergency fund for pandemic relief through its savings-and-loan digital app.

Practice good pandemic protocol

10. Mask up, and follow public health guidelines. This may seem obvious, but in a highly transient resort community, it’s especially important (for up-to-date information, visit covid19.pitkincounty.com). We all want to keep the lifts open this winter, as well as restaurants, services, other businesses, and our schools. Aspen (cityofaspen.com) and Snowmass Village (tosv.com) have both indoor and outdoor mask zones, while a statewide mandate requires face coverings in all public places and on mass transportation.

“There are not many things when it comes to a global pandemic where an individual can make a difference,” notes Aspen Mayor Torre. “But giving people these tools to protect themselves and others can make a positive dent in the transmission of the virus.”

11. Help feed those who need it. The pandemic has magnified food insecurity in the area, with some 4,000 families from Aspen to De Beque receiving regular assistance last fall. Needed are volunteers to distribute or deliver food, as well as food or cash donations to the organizations that coordinate those efforts. Aspen Family Connections (aspenaef.org/content-series), the Aspen Skiing Company (aspensnowmass.com), and LIFT-UP (liftup.org) run weekly drive-through food giveaways. Valley Meals and More (facebook.com/ValleyMealsAndMore) and A Little Help (alittlehelp.org) rely on volunteers to shop for and deliver groceries and meals to older residents.

12. Give like people’s lives depend on it. While government programs and locally organized efforts have helped valley residents buy food, pay rent, and cover other basics, there’s always a need for more. Leading the charge for relief is the Aspen Community Foundation (aspencommunityfoundation.org), which oversees a collection of funds and supports local nonprofits in the realms of health and human services, education, and the catch-all category of strengthening community. A pair of funds that the foundation established for Covid-19 relief brought in $7 million from the start of the pandemic through last November 1.

“People do want to help, but they don’t always know how,” says ACF Executive Director Tamara Tormohlen. To that end, ACF produces an annual giving guidebook of around 40 local nonprofits vetted through the organization’s grant-making process.

Support the valley’s diverse arts scene

13. Be a patron. As arts organizations have had to scale back, eliminate, or reimagine events, it’s more important than ever to support them. Several, such as the Aspen Institute (including Aspen Words; aspeninstitute.org) and the Aspen Music Festival (aspenmusicfestival.com), have successfully pivoted to free online offerings, meaning that out-of-towners can support their favorite organizations before or after a visit, or even without coming to Aspen at all. Thunder River Theatre Company (thunderrivertheatre.com) staged its first play of the 2020–21 season for paid online viewing; the Carbondale nonprofit also offers free virtual performances through its YouTube ThunderStream. Aspen Film (aspenfilm.org) regularly offers new indie movies for paid streaming. There may even be some live events, depending on local health guidelines, as Jazz Aspen Snowmass (jazzaspensnowmass.org) plans to host its JAS Café series for smaller audiences, and The Aspen Music Festival and School (aspenmusicfestival.com) has slated three concerts for February.

Engaging with the arts is good for you, too. “There’s such a well-documented benefit to access to arts and culture,” says Ryan Honey, executive director of The Arts Campus at Willits (tacaw.org), citing kids’ grades and adult civic participation as examples. The nonprofit offered drive-in movies and street performers last summer and has now moved into the digital realm until its new performing arts center opens in June 2021. “Now more than ever, people need to come together for shared experiences or having something transport us,” Honey says.

14. Buy from local artists. The valley is home to dozens of musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers, and more. Find some of their work at Aspen’s Red Brick Center for the Arts (redbrickaspen.com) and Aspen Chapel Gallery (aspenchapelgallery.org), Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village (andersonranch.org), The Art Base in Basalt (theartbase.org), and the R2 Gallery at the Launchpad in Carbondale (carbondalearts.com). Through January 22, Anderson Ranch is holding a sale of more than 300 pieces from local artists and others, with proceeds benefiting the Ranch’s scholarship program. Local works are also at places like the Harvey Preston Gallery (harveypreston.com), Gonzo Gallery (gonzogallery.com), and LivAspen Art Gallery (livaspenart.com).

Invest in local youth

15. Buddy up as a volunteer. Through the Buddy Program (buddyprogram.org), mentor a local youth, age 6 to 18, who needs a little extra encouragement or guidance. Become a restorative justice volunteer for YouthZone (youthzone.com), which specializes in intervention, prevention, and community service, working with 1,000 kids per year. Or mentor students from seventh grade through high school for Roaring Fork PreCollegiate (rfprecollegiate.org), a college preparatory program for motivated students who are the first in their families to attain higher education.

16. Donate to the next generation. Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s (teamavsc.org) mission is to give all kids the chance to learn a snow sport through its Aspen Supports Kids program; the valley’s oldest youth nonprofit also trains elite alpine, freestyle, snowboard, and Nordic athletes, counting among its alumni many Olympians.

Aspen Community Foundation’s Cradle to Career Initiative drives programs that ensure disadvantaged children are ready for kindergarten, succeed academically and socially in school, and are prepared for college and careers. Contribute $25,000 to the cause and get an Ultimate Ski Pass, which is good for skiing at the four SkiCo mountains and is transferable.

The Aspen Youth Center (aspenyouthcenter.org) provides a haven for 4th through 12th graders at the Aspen Recreation Center and offers a diverse range of free, staff-led activities year-round.

As the fundraising arm of the Aspen School District, the Aspen Education Foundation (aspenaef.org) supports programs like outdoor ed, robotics, and college counseling. The nonprofit also covered the vast majority of Covid-related expenses to get students and staff back in school last fall. Says AEF Executive Director Cynthia Chase, “These kids will be our community leaders—they’re our future, and that’s why investing in education is so important.”

17. Apply to be a school sub or bus driver. Substitute teachers and bus drivers have always been in short supply in the Aspen School District (aspen.tedk12.com), but the need is acute during the pandemic, when health accommodations or quarantines preclude some staff from doing their jobs in person. Expedited yet thorough processes get applicants the proper licenses they need to fill in.

Help the local economy thrive

18. Shop indie stores and brands. Visit Sugar Sweet Clothing (533 E Hopkins Ave) for chic, affordable women’s wear and accessories; Susie’s Limited (600 E Main St), a longtime staple for designer consignment; Explore Booksellers (221 E Main St), one of a rare breed of independent bookstores; Aspen Emporium & Flying Circus (315 E Main St), offering goods from 70 local artists and artisans; and Carl’s Pharmacy (306 E Main St) for just about anything you can think of. Gear up with High Society (highsocietyfreeride.com), a maker of skis, snowboards, and paddleboards; Strafe (strafeouterwear.com), a technical skiwear company; and Corbeaux (corbeauxclothing.com), a purveyor of performance base layers.

19. Support Roaring Fork Valley growers. Agriculture is burgeoning in the Roaring Fork Valley, as new farmers join established ranchers (see “The Seeds We Sow” feature in our Summer/Fall 2020 issue). Find locally grown and raised goodies at Skip’s Farm to Market in Basalt, or join a CSA. Most local growers also attend summer farmers’ markets. Local farms and ranches include Sustainable Settings, Rock Bottom Ranch, The Farm Collaborative, Two Roots Farm, Erin’s Acres, Wild Mountain Seeds, Mountain Primal Meat Company, Cap-K-Ranch, The Other Side Ranch, and Nieslanik Beef.

Promote health and well-being, yours and others’

20. Donate to or volunteer with a community health organization. Besides the area’s many medical providers, some nonprofits focus on physical and mental health. Aspen Community Health (aspencommunityhealth.org) provides affordable preventive health services to all who need them. The Aspen Hope Center’s (ourhopecenter.org) array of services is designed to fill in gaps and decrease the stress of dealing with the existing mental health system. Founded in response to Pitkin County’s alarming suicide rate, Aspen Strong (aspenstrong.org) promotes mental hygiene through education and other resources.

21. Lead with your heart. With a mission of shifting culture away from fear, Lead with Love (ileadwithlove.org) teaches how to cultivate well-being in oneself and one’s community. During the pandemic, the local nonprofit is focused on yoga and wellness programs for essential workers as well as custom sessions for other employers. The popular Love in Action biweekly Zoom series, a forum to discuss current issues in a meaningful way, continues, which also allows visitors to take part in a characteristically Aspen program even when not in town.

“More than ever, this mantra to lead with love is important, because of the divisiveness we’re seeing in our nation and families,” says LWL founder Gina Murdock. “We’re being called on to look at where we have skills to offer, and to offer those with as much generosity and open-heartedness as we can. It’s a spiritual perspective that we’re all more alike than we are different.”

Actively engage with the community

22. Learn your place. New to the area or ready to connect on a deeper level? Aspen’s rich history breeds a sense of local pride. Find out about the mining boom, the making of a world-class ski and cultural destination, the countercultural spirit, and the town’s quirky characters at the Aspen Historical Society (aspenhistory.org). Wintersköl (aspenchamber.org), town’s annual mid-January celebration, includes the historical society’s entertaining and fast-paced Aspen History 101. And the City of Aspen’s multiweek public Citizens Academy explores the role and responsibilities of local government.

23. Share your talents. If you’ve got a professional skill to share, there’s someone who could benefit from it. Lend time to Alpine Legal Services (alpinelegalservices.org), which offers free assistance for those who can’t afford a traditional attorney. Teach a skill or topic of expertise through Colorado Mountain College (coloradomtn.edu). Or volunteer with Challenge Aspen (challengeaspen.org), which serves disabled guests and veterans with a variety of recreational opportunities, or the Shining Stars Foundation (shiningstarsfoundation.org), which brings kids with cancer to the mountains annually to ski and experience other outdoor fun.

24. Respect your elders. Pitkin County Senior Services (pitkinseniors.com) offers an array of programs and services that allow local elders to age well. Although the pandemic has scaled back volunteer opportunities, you can still help by delivering meals, assisting in the Senior Center’s kitchen, and providing rides.

25. Listen up. Apply for a local three-day session of Our Community Listens (ourcommunitylistens.org), a nationwide program that was started by Aspenites Bob and Cynthia Chapman. The program derived from a highly effective communication skills training course at global manufacturing firm Barry-Wehmiller, where Bob is CEO. Over three transformative days, participants explore subjects like compassion, their interaction with others, and authenticity, all with the goal of improving the connection among all of us.

You don’t even have to be in Aspen to experience enlightenment; during the pandemic, OCL is offering a series of online classes while in-person learning is on hiatus.

Drop In, Give Back

Even if you’re visiting for just a few days, it’s easy to act in support of Aspen causes and soak up some positive, generosity-fueled vibes. In particular, check out these items in our list.

#1  Book low-impact lodging for a future visit.
#2  Take the bus or bike share.
#3  Keep location hashtags in check.
#6  Visit the Aspen Animal Shelter.
#7  Clean up in your wake.
#10  Mask up and keep all of us safer.
#13  Attend local performances, in person or virtually.
#14  Buy local art.
#18  Shop local stores.
#19  Support local growers.
#22  Visit the Aspen Historical Society.

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