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Single mothers turn to community support and crowdfunding to get through pandemic
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Michelle Van Wingerden cooks in her Colorado Springs home

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A typical day in Michelle Van Wingerden’s Colorado Springs home is full of activity.

Two kids need rides, 20 minutes each way, to school each day.

She heads home, and while caring for her toddler, she cooks. Van Wingerden runs a meal prep business called Served out of her home, and delivers meals to her private clients.

Colorado Voices

Mother of five thanks community for help through pandemic

Rating: TV-PG

A Colorado Springs mother says crowdfunding helped her through lean times in the pandemic

Then there are football practices across town for her son, piano lessons for her daughter, and all of the demands of caring for a toddler.

The next day she does it all again... and she does it on her own. Van Wingerden is a single mother of five, with three kids still living at home. She receives child support and relies on her business to help make ends meet.

Michelle Van Wingerden and her family. Photo courtesy: Rebekah Cisler

“It's a heavy burden you have to carry because you have essentially five other lives that you're responsible for,” she said. “Being a single mom, I've always struggled, but it just seemed like it amplified once COVID hit.”  

Much has been said about the impact of the pandemic on mothers. COVID-19 and its fallout have forced millions of women out of the workforce

When Van Wingerden’s business took a sharp hit, she reluctantly turned in a direction so many others have during the pandemic: crowdfunding and community support.

“The biggest thing that came along was my electricity, I was extremely behind on it,” she said. 

Van Wingerden said she entered into a payment plan but couldn’t keep up with it as the pandemic wore on. 

“One morning we got up and our lights were shut off,” she said.

Van Wingerden applied for emergency utility assistance but was concerned the application wouldn’t be processed quickly enough to get her family through a cold February week. She posted on a Facebook moms group she belongs to, asking if anyone had a non-electric heater. The group came together to put Van Wingerden’s family in a hotel room for a few nights. She said her mother and brother helped out too.

Then, her longtime friend Vanessa Little got involved. 

Little is also a business owner. She runs Miss Vanessa’s Piano Studio, teaching young people to play piano. Van Wingerden's daughter is one of her students. Early in the pandemic, Little said she started a successful crowdfunding campaign for scholarships to make sure her students could continue classes even if their parents couldn't work. That experience gave Little an idea to help her friend.

“I went to bed, wasn't sure what to do, woke up the next day and I was like, ‘Oh, I can rally the community!’” Little said.

She put together a GoFundMe fundraiser sharing the family’s story. But Van Wingerden was hesitant, feeling there were other people who needed help more than she did. After all, the family still had their home.

“I understood her reluctance,” Little said. “A lot of us feel that way. We've taken care of ourselves [and think] we'll get out of it. That happens to a lot of people and it ends up snowballing and snowballing and snowballing. … We're like, ‘This is really terrible, but I'm going to come out of it. I'm going to come out on top.’ And sometimes there are just times when you just don't come out on top and need support.”

Vanessa Little decided to 'rally the community' to help her friend.

Ultimately Van Wingerden agreed. Little posted the fundraiser, sending the fundraiser to her email list.

“I sent it really late at night … and within seconds, people were already donating. I woke up the next morning and we were about … 20% of the goal. And then by noon or maybe a little bit after noon, we had reached the goal,” Little said.

“It just amazed me that people I've never even met in my life were donating, just because of what she had written about our situation. No questions asked, no judgment,” Van Wingerden said. “It definitely touched my heart .... they don't know me, they don't know my kids, and they came through for us.”

More turning to crowdfunding to pay basic expenses during COVID-19

A GoFundMe spokesperson said about 13% of its fundraisers these days are like Van Wingerden’s, helping people pay basic expenses like utilities and rent. The crowdfunding site’s CEO wrote an op-ed in February, before Congress passed the latest round of COVID-19 relief, arguing, "The surge in these types of fundraisers is a direct result of government programs coming up short." 

“A lot of a women just don’t have the time to stand up and say ‘Help us, we’re drowning!’” said Mina Watkins, a single mother who relocated to Colorado during the pandemic with her toddler and turned to a GoFundMe campaign for help in February.

Watkins is a self-employed business consultant. She said the pandemic cost her some clients, and difficulty finding child care made it nearly impossible for her to work. She receives child care assistance from the state of Colorado, but said it has been a struggle to find a child care facility with space for her daughter. 

“People see my post and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you were in this situation,’” Watkins said. “They know it takes a village and they’re happy to help. And that’s very heartwarming for me.”

Watkins said the response to her campaign was very supportive, with most of the donations coming from people she knows. At the same time, she said some have judged her for asking for donations. She wants other mothers to feel comfortable leaning on their communities, friends and families for support.

“Set aside your fear, set aside that belief that you’re not deserving of help," she said. “It’s hard already to be a single mom and the pandemic added another layer."

Van Wingerden said she feels relief knowing she was able to get through a situational crisis with community support. She said she gained several clients who learned about her meal prep business from the fundraising effort. And she said she was able to not only restore her power but pay off her utility bill through community and family support and emergency utility assistance.

“For the most part, I'm blessed. I have a home, I have healthy kids,” she said. “I'm grateful to those people who stepped up and didn't know who I was or my family, and they just gave out of their hearts.”

“I like that I see situations like this, where community and real people see other real people and help. Help their neighbor, support … it’s like a village,” Little said.

This story is part of The Long Haul, an ongoing Rocky Mountain PBS series focused on personal stories from Colorado communities about the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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