On Thursday, March 23, the Ogden Theatre stage will be graced by a slate of Colorado superstars: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, DeVotchKa, Joe Sampson, and Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit of Flobots.
While it's easy to be wowed by the star power of the lineup, the concert has an important message and philanthropic aim: Called “Sounds of Solidarity,” the show is being put on to raise awareness about refugees in Colorado, as well as money for Project Worthmore, a local nonprofit that supports them.
Courtesy of Project Worthmore
The benefit concert comes at a fraught time for the Aurora-based organization. Under Donald Trump's administration, Project Worthmore faces severe funding cuts, and the organization recently received a bomb threat.
On January 26 — the same day that President Trump signed his first executive order restricting refugees – two notes were discovered in a stairwell and parking lot at Mango House, the building that houses Project Worthmore's offices, promising to “blow up all you refugees.”
The next day, a group of Somali teenagers was shouted down by men wearing scary Halloween masks inside a pickup truck.
"We've actually had police training with our staff based on a lot of different things that are surfacing because of this new Trump era," says Frank Anello, executive director and founder of Project Worthmore.
With Trump's new refugee ban slated to go into effect on March 16, Anello doesn't see the tension diffusing anytime soon. "It's having a major effect on our staff," Anello notes. "We have a staff member from South Sudan whose five kids are still living over there, and it's now one of the countries that are listed [under the new executive order]."
Project Worthmore also runs a dental clinic that Anello says is 90 percent funded by a Medicaid provision under the Affordable Care Act. "Now we're afraid that, when the [Republicans] repeal the Affordable Care Act, it's going to be a big blow to our organization because a lot of that reimbursement money we get from Medicaid goes to help the rest of our programs," says Anello.
"We just don't know what to expect on a daily basis," he adds.
Courtesy of Project Worthmore
Anello co-founded Project Worthmore in 2011 after he spent a couple of years volunteering with Lutheran Family Services, one of the major refugee resettlement agencies in Colorado.
"I saw a huge need and a lot of families that were falling through the gaps," Anello remembers. “This wasn't intentional on the part of the resettlement agencies, but because of the overwhelming amount of refugees in need."
That's when Anello decided to offer services, mentorship and friendship to the estimated 50,000 refugees living in metro Denver with his own organization. "[At first] it was literally me gathering friends and co-workers to volunteer and assist families with doing basic things: helping them learn English, homework help, things of that sort," he says.
Six years later, Project Worthmore's staff of 32 – fifteen of whom are refugees – assists between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees per year by providing dental clinics, English classes, citizenship courses and access to community farming and produce.
Abdul, a refugee, takes English lessons through Project Worthmore.
Courtesy of Project Worthmore
As many as 2,500 additional refugees arrive in the Denver and Aurora area each year, with prominent representation from Burma, Somalia, Bhutan, Iraq and Ethiopia. But even during Anello's time working with refugees, he has witnessed a decline in government support.
"When I first started working with refugees in 2009, they used to get about six to eight months of rental and utility assistance,” he says. “Now it's down to about two months [until] families are expected to be on their own, paying rent in an extremely expensive city."
"Refugees also have to pay back their airline tickets that they came here on,” he adds. For a large family, that can mean “thousands of dollars worth of debt as soon as they arrive."
Still, Anello has been touched by the indomitable spirit and the patriotism of refugees that he's worked with. He cites the example of a man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who just arrived to Colorado in February.
"He'd been dreaming about coming to America since being a boy,” Anello says. The man even came wearing a USA beanie, a USA jean jacket, a stars-and-stripes T-shirt and patriotic tennis shoes. “I nicknamed him Captain America,” Anello jokes.
Even so, the man had had to wait fifteen years in a Ugandan refugee camp before he and his daughter were granted entry into the United States. That kind of wait is not uncommon, Anello says, even though President Trump asserts that the vetting process for refugees is not “extreme” enough.
Courtesy of Project Worthmore
Fortunately for Anello, he happens to have connections to some well-known musicians in Colorado who are coming together to help out Project Worthmore.
"I'd always been trying to get Nathaniel [Rateliff] to do stuff with us, even before he hit it big and was playing his solo stuff with the Wheel,"Anello says.
His friendship with Rateliff dates back to 2006, when Anello started working at WaterCourse Foods in Capitol Hill. "I met Nathaniel back then because his now-wife and I were co-managers back then at WaterCourse," recalls Anello.
More recently, Anello ran into Rateliff and his wife at the Martin Luther King Jr. Marade on January 16.
"We were hanging out and walking down the street, and I was bitching and moaning about all of the stuff that's going on,” Anello says.
He found a sympathetic audience. And not long after the Marade, when Rateliff heard about the bomb threat made against Project Worthmore, Anello was put in touch with Rateliff's manager about doing a benefit show.
"He instantly said yes," says Anello.
Under Rateliff's headlining spot, the rest of the all-star lineup followed. The Flobots connection came because Jamie Laurie (Jonny 5) is on Project Worthmore's board.
"And then we reached out to Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa, because the viola player with the Flobots, MacKenzie [Gault], had done some side stuff with [Hagerman]."
"They were all on board for doing this," says Anello. “Then we got word that Governor Hickenlooper will be talking at the night as well."
Westword reached out to the governor, who shared his perspective on refugees in the Trump era and his reasons for participating in the benefit concert.
“I think these kind of refugee-support events are important to let refugees know that we appreciate what they've gone through to get here,” Hickenlooper says. “You know, most of them have been in refugee camps for years — sometimes as many as six or seven years — and that's not much different than living in a prison."
“I'm a believer that if we make sure that our vetting is the most rigorous in the world — which it is, by all accounts — that refugees become our allies in this war against terror,” he adds.
Hickenlooper has already shown his support for refugees during the new president's administration; on February 22, he participated in a welcoming ceremony for 75 refugees at Union Station. He says that he hasn't heard anything about it from the Trump White House. “I don't think it's even on their radar.”
At the Sounds of Solidarity concert on March 23, he will say a few words and introduce at least one of the acts. Known for his love of music and for his own playing, Hickenlooper jokes that he'll probably leave his guitar at home. "I think I'll probably spare the world that," he says.
Instead, he's looking forward to seeing world-class musicians from Colorado come together for an important cause. "The willingness of our music community to come out and go to bat for these types of issues is really impressive,” Hickenlooper says. “That you've got a band like Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, who've been on the road for almost a year and a half — that's an impressive thing that they're willing to go out and donate their time for something like this. Same with DeVotchKa and Joe Sampson and Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit...those guys are busy and talented."
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Anello is equally grateful. "It's important to do these types of events to engage people," he says.
As for the current challenges, "It's been hard,” he says. “But it's also driven a lot of really good people toward refugee agencies. We are being inundated with volunteers ready to help. So there is some good that comes with the bad.”
The "Sounds of Solidarity" concert takes place at 8 p.m. March 23 at the Ogden Theatre. Any tickets that are still available can be found here. For more information on Project Worthmore, visit its website.