‘Out of the goodness of their hearts’: Women Helping in Pagosa Springs nears 12 years of philanthropy

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Nancy Ford

By John Finefrock
Staff Writer

For about 12 years, Women Helping in Pagosa Springs (WHIPS) has met each month to discuss how they can better serve the community.

WHIPS gives direct, monthly financial assistance to individuals and families in need and also gives two female graduating seniors a $1,200 scholarship each year.

WHIPS was started in 2008 by the late Cindy Gustafson, with support of her husband Ron Gustafson, who was routinely the only man allowed at the WHIPS meetings, and who was deemed the groups’ “mascot” by one of WHIPS’s longtime members.

WHIPS was started when Cindy Gustafson heard about a women’s group in town that met at restaurants once a month to discuss pertinent local issues, but thought the $16 price tag for each participant was too much.

Cindy then started WHIPS with the goal of including more women in the local community by dropping the price for each lunch down to no more than $12 per meal per person.

“People said that won’t even work,” said Ron Gustafson, who was married to Cindy for 42 years. “Well, it did work.” 

WHIPS met each month, without skipping a beat, following the group’s inception in 2008.

However, in April and May of this year, WHIPS had to cancel its meetings, held on the last Tuesday of each month, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the monthly luncheons, WHIPS members identify members of the community who need financial assistance.

“Every month we pretty much help someone,” said Nancy Ford, longtime member of WHIPS. “It’s mentioned by our ladies at the luncheon, ‘Oh I know this person, her husband is unable to work right now from a broken leg,’ or somebody has cancer and they have to go to Denver for tests. It’s word of mouth from our ladies, bringing up someone who needs assistance for that month for gas or groceries or medical transportation.”

Ron Gustafson cited an incident about a decade ago where Jenelle Syverson, now owner of The Choke Cherry Tree, had her cabin burn down and members of WHIPS came to her aid. 

“The house actually burned in the middle of my divorce, so I was just becoming a single mother. I was trying to pay all my bills,” Syverson said in phone call. “WHIPS actually — Cindy just brought me in an envelope full of cash while I was at work one afternoon. It made me bawl. The ladies were fantastic ‘cause it really did, it helped me get through.”

Ron Gustafson noted how much Syverson has accomplished in the years since.

“Look at today what [she] has done … She has a beautiful store now … She has done so much, she’s been on the Chamber board and every time somebody will ask for a donation of some sort she would make up a basket and she has done this many, many, many times. I praise [Jenelle] for all she has done in the community,” he said.

Syverson is now a member of WHIPS.

“Now it’s absolutely fabulous because I get to be on the other side and help other ladies in the same way,” she said.

Cindy Gustafson passed away in December 2014, just prior to the monthly WHIPS meeting.

Ron Gustafson noted that more than 250 people attended Cindy’s celebration of life, demonstrating how entwined with the local community she was.

Ford asked the WHIPS ladies at the next meeting if they wanted to continue the group.

“I asked the ladies, ‘Do you want to continue or not?’ and they said, ‘Well if you’ll do it, ‘cause you helped Cindy, we’ll help you.’”

Ford has been the leader of WHIPS ever since.

Ford explained that, on many occasions, Cindy Gustafson would relay questions that someone asked back to her, as she generally knew the answer.

This happened so often that the catchphrase “Ask Nancy” quickly caught fire within WHIPS and Ford ultimately put it on her business card.

“Cindy would say, ‘Ask Nancy’ and eventually she said, ‘Why don’t you put ‘Ask Nancy’ on your business card?’” Ford said.

Ron Gustafson estimated that WHIPS has raised and distributed more than $20,000 since its inception in 2008.

The 2019 WHIPS scholarship award recipients are McKinzee Kelley, who is attending Adams State University to obtain a degree in nursing, and Valeria Monterroso, who is attending San Juan College to prepare to be a pediatric nurse.

Ford noted she hopes to restart the WHIPS meetings soon, once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, and that the meetings are usually attended by around 30 people and have had up to 75 attendees.

“These are some fantastic ladies. It’s such an honor and a privilege to be a member of a group that gets together just because, out of the goodness of their hearts, they want to help,” Syverson said. “It’s part of why we love Pagosa because there’s people here like that.”