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Innovators Society

Mental-wellness innovators reunite with investors

Community First Foundation eager to work with next batch of organizations


What a difference a year makes.

Just ask the six organizations that a year ago received a share of $500,000 in grants from the Community First Foundation in its first Innovators Society Pitch Showdown.

In the ensuing 12 months, Project Helping has recruited 37 new event leaders to help host volunteer events that improve mental wellness of all involved.

Clayton Early Learning recruited seven teachers into its Embrace program, which helps to build teachers' emotional wellness through mindfulness and coaching.

Bright By Three signed up about 8,000 Coloradoans to its text program, which sends helpful messages and information to new and struggling parents.

CU-Denver School of Public Affairs' Patient-Centered Network reached 90 percent programmed on its patient-focused app that analyzes a patient's social support network data and provides a menu of resources to providers as they deliver care.

Im'Unique held 100 Breakin' Bread, Breakin' Barriers sessions, which allowed participants to share their stories of the challenges they case and reduce the stigma of mental illness.

And the Carson J. Spencer Foundation, which aimed to create an online platform to help middle school students cope with and manage their emotions, was dissolved.

So, as Noah Atencio, vice president of community impact at Community First Foundation, sees it — a successful first program, if not without challenges.

"Community First is becoming a leader in mental wellness," Atencio said. "It's going to take the whole community to change the stigma on mental health, and we want to jump in."

Representatives of the five organizations continuing to do work met with supporters and Community First members at Red Rocks Community College's Arvada campus on Sept. 19 to show their progress. The event was also an opportunity for Atencio and staff to get supporters ready for the next group of innovators, which will start being culled next summer.

"This event is a great way for our innovators to be held accountable to their investors," said Samantha Barlow, communications coordinator with Community First. "We're always thinking, 'How can we be more relevant?'"

All six organizations presented ideas to address the challenges of mental wellness, but their ideas had not yet been tried at the time. Each received an initial grant of $25,000 and nine months to develop ideas.

The Pitch Showdown was held at the Lakewood Cultural Center on Sept. 30. There were 250 community members invited, all of whom were given $1,800 each from Community First to donate to the participant of their choice, after hearing a five-minute presentation from each. Community members were advised to not consider risk and instead think of which programs they found the most promising.

"It's really amazing the amount of growth we've seen in the past year," said Justin Kruger, founder of Project Helping. Kruger was the winner of the Pitch Showdown, and won an additional $50,000. "We acted like a startup at first, because we were one, but we've built an amazing foundation that gives volunteers hope."

Some of the changes for the next group of innovators will be a focus on accelerating the innovations, increased community engagement, and beefing up recruitment, Atencio explained.

Which, considering the power of investing in these kinds of groups, it should be a no-brainer.

"People say to us, who knew technology could help with mental health?" said Danielle Varda, with CU-Denver's Patient Centered Network. "We know social connections have an effect on mental health outcomes."


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