Winning a state government award last month for getting a food assistance program up and running during the pandemic was an impressive achievement for Mia Donley (MNLEND, 2015–16). What makes it even more impressive was the timing.
Donley, a registered dietician who received a master’s degree in public health from the University of Minnesota, joined the Colorado Department of Human Services in March 2020 as an education and outreach coordinator for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Just a few weeks later, Donley and a team of others from the DHS and the Education Department were tapped to issue Pandemic-EBT benefits to families of school-aged children who were not able to receive free or reduced-price lunches due to school closures. The electronic benefits were issued beginning in July.
Last month, Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced that the team, including Donley and colleagues Megan Hrdlicka and Max Young, won the Tom Clements Better Government Award for Outstanding Service. The award highlights the work of those who have elevated the performance of state government and strive to leave Colorado’s government better than they found it, according to Polis.
In nominating the group, Office of Economic Security Director Ki’i Powell and Food and Energy Assistance Director Karla Maraccini praised the Pandemic-EBT program for “ensuring hundreds of thousands of Colorado children were food secure during the pandemic, going above and beyond their typical workload for months to get the program up and running.”
Donley called the experience a crash course in crisis communication, listening skills, and benefits administration.
“We were building the plane as we were flying it, working with community partners to get the word out about the application and other details,” she said. “There were a lot of lessons learned, and it brought me back to my time with MN-LEND, when I interviewed members of the Somali community who had children with autism and were trying to learn about possible resources. The frustration so many people feel as they try to access benefits is universal. Above all, listening to participants is so important.”
As her team now prepares for a second round of the electronic benefits to be dispersed, she said, they will take what they’ve heard from those participants and use the information to improve the process.
“We have to respect the stress families are under now,” she said. “If you have run out of resources, we are sometimes the only place where people can vent their frustration. And I share it. We have to get these families fed.”