In this Planet file photo, San Miguel Search and Rescue personnel responded to the Wilson Mesa trail outside Telluride for a 57-year-old local woman who got bucked from her horse and sustained traumatic injuries. The organization was one of the two recipients of the Telluride Foundation’s 2020 Citizen of the Year award. (Planet file photo)

While COVID-19 created unprecedented challenges, it also created a strong sense of community with neighbors helping each other overcome a myriad of obstacles, including health, financial, schooling, safety and child care. The Telluride Foundation’s Board of Directors was given the difficult task of selecting the 2020 Citizen of the Year, an award that honors community volunteers, at its bi-annual meeting on Dec. 29. This past year, more than ever, the Telluride Foundation wants to honor those heroes and angels among us who stepped up to unselfishly contribute to the community during a particularly difficult year, according to a news release.

The foundation received nine nominations for the award, and with each one being deserving, selecting just one was impossible. For the first time ever, the foundation board unanimously named two organizations as winners: San Miguel County Search and Rescue (SAR) and the founding Ouray County Good Neighbor Fund (OCGNF) team of Marti and Patrick O’Leary and Cat and Barthold Lichtenbelt.

“The Telluride Foundation created its Citizen of the Year award to honor individuals who unselfishly make extraordinary contributions to the region’s quality of life. This year, we choose to honor two great organizations of volunteers who have stepped up to help house or feed a neighbor in need or risked their own safety to protect the life of someone in danger,” said Paul Major, Telluride Foundation president & CEO. “The board was truly humbled in the selection this year.”

SAR and the OCGNF team were nominated by community and peers for exemplary service and volunteerism to the community. After all nominations are in, past recipients of the award are responsible for evaluating all the nominations and deciding on two finalists, with the Telluride Foundation board selecting the ultimate 2020 recipient.

SAR is a volunteer organization that provides community service, collaboration, leadership and compassion. In such an atypical year as 2020, SAR was unusually busy providing rescue services to the community and a multitude of visitors 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by volunteers who frequently and selflessly put their own lives at risk in order to save others.  In addition to their rescue missions, SAR volunteers train an average of four to eight hours per month, some didactic, but mostly hands-on technical trainings such as swift-water rescue, lake ice rescues, low and high angle rope rescues, as well as regular familiarity and maintenance of equipment trainings. SAR volunteers exhibit tremendous professionalism, commitment, and dedication.

“On behalf of San Miguel County’s Search and Rescue volunteer organization, we are both pleased and humbled with the Citizen of the Year award from the Telluride Foundation. These 43 men and women are not only committed to extensive technical training, but they drop everything to come to the rescue of those who are in the most dangerous and vulnerable situations of their lives. They not only give their time, but more often than not, they do so in hazardous conditions and take calculated risks on behalf of saving others. The citizens and visitors of San Miguel County are fortunate beyond measure to have this team of experienced and selfless volunteers at their service,” San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said.

The O’Learys and Lichtenbelts have a history of community volunteerism and support for numerous nonprofits in Ouray County, including the Ridgway Chautauqua Society, the Sherbino Theater, Weehawken Creative Arts, the Log Hill Fire Department and the Ridgway Library. However, in the first moments of the COVID shutdown, these four Ouray County community members stepped up to the plate to find a way to help their neighbors and friends. They first approached community leaders with the idea of creating a fund for Ouray County citizens in need. The goal was clear — set up a fund that would help ensure the people who make this community so great could remain in their homes, despite the pandemic that was upending their lives economically. The timeline was ambitious, as were the fundraising goals. However, these four citizens set out to establish partnerships, raise money, challenge the community to donate through a one to one match and help those in need throughout the difficult year.

“The OCRF fund has received about 100 donations so far. To put that in perspective, that means that about one out of every 50 individuals who live in Ouray County donated to the fund. That is a great ratio, in my humble opinion. I’m truly happy to hear that we were able to help about 126 families and individuals with those donations,” Bart Lichtenbelt said. “Quite an amazing community we live in.”

As the 2020 Citizen of the Year, SAR and the OCGNF team will both receive a commemorative plaque and a grant of $5,000 to be given in their name to the local nonprofits of their choice.

These organizations share this honor with past recipients Terry Tice (2003), Lissa Margetts (2004), John Micetic (2005), Bill Carstens (2006), John Pryor and Jane Hickcox (2007), Kathy Green (2008), Marilyn Branch (2009), Dan and Greer Garner and Andrea Benda (2010) and Billy “Senior” Mahoney (2011), Anne Brady (2012), Dean Rolley (2013), Kristin Holbrook (2014), Gary Freedman (2015), Elaine Fischer (2016), Wendy Brooks (2017), and Susan Rice (2018), and Barb Gross (2019). The Telluride Foundation plans to hold public community celebrations for each organization when it is safe to do so this summer or fall.

For more information about the Telluride Foundation, visit