BY MATT SALIS

There is a stigma associated with living in the Wash Park neighborhood. We are thought to be affluent, aloof, snobby, insensitive, narrow-minded and arrogant. I’ve lived here for over 15 years, and while we do have neighbors who perpetuate that stigma, the vast majority of the people in this neighborhood are generous, down-to-earth, friendly and outgoing. The stigma is easy to shake just by being ourselves and living our authentic life.

Now imagine you are lumped into a group shrouded in stigma, but you lack the resources to shake it off. What if your classmates tease you about being poor and coming from a broken family, but you don’t have enough money for clothes or school supplies giving ammunition to your oppressors? What if you are shunned by your neighbors because you have lost your home, but the stigma associated with homelessness prevents you from finding a job so you can earn your way back onto your feet? What if everyone around you expects you to continue the cycle of poverty you were born into and you don’t have enough food to eat so you can think and learn and grow and thrive? What if you suffer from addiction but have no hope for freedom because the cure for your disease is as shrouded in stigma as the affliction itself?

What if the very stigma is the thing holding you down? What then?

We named our organization, Stigma, because the word is relatable, daunting and oh so powerful. Everyone knows what it means to be lumped into a stereotype – to be considered less than just because we meet a certain undesirable criteria. We are here to battle the stigma, and give assistance to those fighting terrible circumstances and the label that weighs them down.

Stigma is the continuation of a decade plus of work – now formalized and organized to maximize our effects on the lives of the people we serve. We are local and low overhead, so the donations we receive translate directly into results for our neighbors who need help getting back up after being beaten down. Here are a few of the ways we are engaged with our Denver community:

Backpacks that Nourish – Nearly 15% of students in Denver Public Schools suffer from the stigma and empty bellies of food insecurity. They receive two nourishing meals per day at school during the week, but what about the weekends? For the past decade, we have been helping provide elementary students in Southeast Denver with backpacks full of food to take home from school on Friday afternoons to help sustain them and their families until breakfast on Monday mornings. These Backpacks that Nourish have helped thousands of our hungry neighbors to survive, and given them the fuel to break the cycle of poverty.

Christmas in the Park – For Denver’s homeless population, Christmas morning has just meant another bitterly cold December day to try to survive. For three years now, Stigma has joined forces with caring churches, businesses, individuals and families in Civic Center Park to provide food, clothing, coats, winter hats, wool socks, gloves and other essentials to nearly a thousand of our homeless neighbors. Again this year, we are responsible for distributing rolling suitcases and backpacks on Christmas morning.

You deserve new luggage anyway, don’t you? Did you buy your kids new backpacks for school this fall? Please donate your rolling suitcases and backpacks to help the most stigmatized members of our community survive the winter. Rolling suitcases and backpacks can be dropped off at Washington Park United Methodist Church at 1955 East Arizona Avenue between 9am and 4pm weekdays. To arrange for a special dropoff time, please send a message to sheri@theStigma.org. For our neighbors without a home, securing their belongings is a requirement for survival, and we are eager to help.

Stigmattack – We are proud to have raised over $53,000 in the past 13 years for the Denver Public Schools’ Homeless Education Network. HEN provides transportation, toiletries, clothing, food and educational support to the 3% of the DPS student population suffering from homelessness. This underfunded department in DPS faces government-funding cutbacks, and relies on donations from organizations like Stigma to meet the massive and growing need for their services. HEN believes that the key to bringing the cycle of homelessness to an end is providing an education and life resources to teach these loving and eager students a new normal.

SHOUT Sobriety – We can’t battle stigma without addressing addiction. SHOUT Sobriety is our flagship early sobriety program designed to help struggling people navigate the very treacherous waters of early recovery from alcoholism. We view addiction as a brain disease and not just a spiritual deficiency and help our participants understand brain chemistry, learn about pro-recovery nutrition, resonate in group settings, find the patience to heal, deal with tough family situations that result from alcohol abuse and address the many other aspects of this most complex condition of addiction. We offer our program for free to all high-functioning alcoholics because we don’t believe you should have to pay for your freedom. The program survives on donations from alumni and others who believe in our work and want to help our neighbors fight the stigma associated with alcoholism. We are proud of our 92% success rate and hope you’ll support us in destigmatizing the largest and most deadly chronic disease of our own human invention and proliferation.

We are called Stigma and eradication of the blame and shame associated with homelessness, poverty and addiction is our mission. These conditions affect all of us and people we love, to varying degrees, and they deserve our attention. Don’t ignore those in need living around us. In Denver, we are better than that. Don’t nod your head at the worthiness of our causes, then leave it to the next guy to get involved. Please support our efforts and become part of the solution to the stigma. Now that’s the reputation my Wash Park neighbors deserve!

For more information, or to donate, please visit theStigma.org.

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