Extraordinary people conquering extraordinary times.
By Natasha Bourlin
Many people and businesses have suffered during the pandemic, but many others have strived toward new goals while positively affecting others. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, stories abound of organizations that have pivoted as gracefully as a ballet dancer towards new ways to serve their community, and even save their businesses. Inspiring people instilling new tactics relevant to the times to pursue their goals. Like these four forward-thinking folks.
STAR Navigator Stacey Montooth, Executive Director of the Nevada Indian Commission
A citizen of the Washoe Paiute nation born on a reservation in Schurz, Nev., Stacey Montooth is charged with being the liaison between the governor’s office and the more than 60,000 Native Americans spread amongst 27 tribal governments within the state. Her mission is to improve the quality of life for these indigenous peoples.
Just over a year into her position, it’s “quite a job,” Montooth says.
As part of this mission, in January 2020 the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum opened its doors in Carson City … for 60 days. Then the pandemic hit.
A long-envisioned endeavor, the campus, now on the National Register of Historic Places, served as an off-reservation boarding school for American Indians from across the West between 1890-1980.
Montooth’s predecessor believed the closed school could serve as an educational tool comprised of a walking tour narrated by school alumni and their predecessors sharing their firsthand experiences. Authenticity was critical after years of Native Americans’ stories being shared inaccurately by those writing the history books.
Montooth helped bring the school to fruition.
Upon opening the cultural center, nearly 1,000 visitors came through. Once closed for the pandemic, they launched virtual tours online. It’s now re-opened to the public, with safety measures in place. By visiting the cultural center, you can support the area’s indigenous people.
As the pandemic affects all walks of life today, Montooth sees a silver lining.
“We know for a fact our people are very resilient, this is not our first pandemic. Our relatives have learned to live through everything from smallpox to tuberculosis, all kinds of ailments.”
STAR Navigator Colin West, Founder of Clean Up The Lake
Colin West went from creating multiple television shows on wine to eradicating waste from Lake Tahoe. Quite the career leap.
Working on film projects helped him form a nonprofit incorporating his production skills into a Tahoe-wide effort to remove trash from the lake. The nonprofit Clean Up The Lake was born.
Thousands of pounds of refuse have since been removed by SCUBA divers helping to save the environment from under the water’s surface, while videographers illustrate the effort.
“Looking at Tahoe, everyone sees it as beautiful, but if you look under the surface both literally and figuratively, there are issues,” West explains. “What really caught my eye was a SCUBA cleanup the same day I was doing a shore clean up that pulled up 600 pounds of trash from one little cove.”
With a plethora of causes to delve into, why choose to explore the depths of Tahoe’s trash situation?
“I would love to fight and solve climate change and pollution globally and socially, but unfortunately you can only do so much,” West says. “I believe that if everyone really puts their heart into it, they can really make a difference, and when it comes to trash it’s one of the global issues that’s very visible. You can really quantify it and can’t deny it.”
Help the COVID-19-impacted effort through monetary or capital in-kind donations.
STAR Navigator Chuck Shapiro, Owner of Wild River Grille
The pandemic’s impact is widespread, but the arts, animal-based nonprofits and causes for children have been especially hard hit.
So, Chuck Shapiro of Wild River Grille took them all on using restaurant proceeds.
Not that restaurants haven’t been heavily affected, as well. However, Wild River Grille (WRG), celebrating its 14th anniversary in June 2021, has been “super crazy busy” since reopening its doors in May, Shapiro says.
Along with his team, Shapiro has donated thousands of dollars to area nonprofits during the pandemic through programs instilled to help organizations in need.
For instance, restaurant gift cards were sold, and 50 percent of the profits were donated to local theatre groups.
Musicians were kept crooning through their virtual Summer Music Series.
Proceeds from the purchase of a specialty cocktail go to help keep the historic Pioneer Center’s doors open.
A vast team of plastic ducks were sold from WRG in support of the Northern Nevada Humane Society’s fundraising duck race.
The Northern Nevada Children’s Cancer Foundation benefitted by WRG’s hosting of Natalia’s Night, an event to raise funds for families of cancer patients.
These are just a few ways Shapiro has directly impacted the community that helped make his restaurant successful.
“Wild River Grille has been this huge blessing and it’s done really well, and I’ve done really well, and it’s because of the community that always supports us,” Shapiro states. “It’s my way of saying thank you and giving back to the community.”
When she saw her eldest son, a super-finicky eater attending an Urban Roots farm camp, pluck kale from the ground, eat it, then suggest the family have it for dinner, a passion — not just incredulity — ignited for the organization within Fayth Ross.
“I don’t know what that magic was . . . experiencing caring for that plant, watering and nurturing it,” Urban Roots’ current executive director Ross says. “But I saw through my son that kids were much more likely to eat their veggies if they had a hand in growing it.”
When an executive position for the organization that put a vegetable in her son opened, she immediately jumped at the opportunity to apply.
Urban Roots is a registered 501 (c)3 organization that “strives to change the way children eat and learn through garden-based education.” Their programming teaches children appreciation for gardening and how to grow their own food through farm school summer camps, school gardens and field trips. With the onset of COVID, they did a 180 in terms of how to continue to serve children during school closures and social distancing requirements.
But, thanks to COVID-19, they weren’t sure their doors could stay open.
The Urban Roots team, with Ross at the helm, developed home activity kits just as gardening fever, along with mandatory quarantining, hit in spring 2020. They included pots, seeds, an age-appropriate gardening book, a recipe, plus materials to do an art or science project, and were translated into Spanish, as well.
Of these kits sold on their website, 73 percent were provided free to low-income and essential workers’ families. Another 3,600 are already committed to schools and families.
Yet it was their summertime virtual fundraiser that solidified the nonprofit’s future through the pandemic. Approximately $87,000 was raised during a free, three-hour online event that incorporated musicians, chefs and farmers live streaming. Created to be educational and fun for homebound families, it was so successful that the USDA asked Urban Roots to present nationally as one of only three innovational invitees.
Ross says being forward thinking is essential today. Her team helps with staying ahead of the game during this pandemic. As an added educational element, a kitchen will open in summer 2021 on their central Reno campus. They’re looking forward to fostering many more kale eaters.
Silver linings in times of crisis are important to search for. In our region, many extraordinary people are doing extraordinary things during the pandemic. They help keep everyone shining!