It is Volunteer Appreciation Week and today the IRC in Denver is thrilled to highlight the invaluable work of Judy Denison, the IRC volunteer credited with obtaining furniture and household items for nearly every refugee family resettled in Colorado since 2020.

April 15, 2023 - Highlands Ranch, CO – The estate sale at this single-family home in a quiet residential suburb is almost over when Judy Denison pulls up in her 2004 white Pontiac Vibe with the bumper sticker “Immigrants and Refugees are Welcome” displayed on the rear window. She leaves the car carrying a bag with loaves of freshly baked cranberry walnut bread, sheets of instructions and a box of tape, scissors, labels and other supplies. A 29-year-old graduate student from Pakistan who is staying at Judy’s house accompanies her.

Steady and strong in her gait, the 86-year-old great grandmother enters the house, greeting everyone with a smile. Judy gives CK & Done Owner Kyle Koster and other volunteers the dessert bread she baked for them and their faces light up. Then she hands out the instructions and they get to work – identifying furniture and household items. Within two hours, Judy and five volunteers chose 17 pieces of furniture and packed dozens of boxes and bags of kitchen and household items that Ck & Done will deliver to the IRC warehouse in southeast Denver – all for free.

With Kyle’s generous help, Judy created this efficient estate sale system in recent months after spending over two years personally collecting furniture and household items in the garage behind her house in Golden. Since 2020, Judy has led the process of collecting nearly all of the items provided for free to nearly every new refugee resettled in the Denver area – roughly 400 families from Afghanistan and over a dozen other countries. This includes couches, dressers, dining room tables and chairs, lamps, kitchen equipment, towels and bed linens and countless other items. 

“There should be a halo around her head,”

said volunteer Monica Wolfe, who participated in the Highlands Ranch estate sale project.

“She keeps all of this going. She perseveres. She is a remarkable woman.”

IRC Housing Specialist Ginny Kooyman called Judy “an absolute inspiration.”

Judy’s ability to get IRC the items they needed saved the organization at least a full-time position. It also helped employees keep their sanity during the extremely challenging Afghan refugee surge, when the IRC had to find homes for 60 families in a month at the height of demand. Ginny said Judy is a big reason why she and her colleagues made it through.

Ginny said:

“She truly has kept us afloat. The impact for our staff and organization and our clients is huge. Last year, in particular, I do not know how we could have done our jobs without her doing what she was doing.”

“You can walk into a refugee’s home in Colorado and most likely some of what you’re seeing is something that Judy got. She deserves all the kudos that can be found for someone with a charitable heart and the drive and commitment to see things through – and not just to want to help out or want to help out when it’s convenient, but to center her life around helping others.”

A Lifelong Passion

All her life, she was drawn to immigrants and refugees and went out of her way to help them. Polish immigrants lived with her family in Laramie. She tutored a man from Congo. She created the Golden Relief Group to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and other domestic and international disasters and crises.

At almost 50, Judy got divorced and moved to Colorado. She learned computer programming and found professional positions utilizing her technical skills. At age 69, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and retired. After treatment, she has remained cancer-free. After retiring, she volunteered at various organizations that supported immigrants and refugees, finding a home with IRC in 2020. Judy has co-founded other non-profit projects, including Save The Mesas in Golden, the Golden Concert Choir, and, with her daughter Jean, the Belize Education Project. For the past 25 years, she’s had college students from around the world living at her home.

Of all of her achievements, Judy said she is most proud of her children (Andrew Denison, twins Jessica Zerga and Diana Denison, and Jean Kirshner)

“because not a one of them is after getting rich. They’re all doing things to make a better world.”

Judy doesn’t track her IRC volunteer hours but estimates that she devoted more than 20 hours a week at the busiest times. She’s known for her tenacity, ability to persuade people to help, her attention to detail and commitment to reaching the goals she sets.

IRC Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer Perry describes Judy as “nothing short of phenomenal.” She recalled the story of Patrick, a student at the Colorado School of Mines:

“He was walking on the sidewalk in front of her house one day. She needed someone to help load the van that she had convinced the Golden Real Estate company to her let use and load things up in,”

Jennifer said.

“She found Patrick walking down the street and asked him to help load the van. He was a little stunned but agreed to do it, and then he became a regular volunteer.”

Judy once asked an apparently unhoused man to help load items, which he was happy to do, and has moved many furniture pieces on her own. She has kept detailed spreadsheets and communicates regularly with IRC staff and volunteers, gathering them to sort items and making calls to find items when they need them. She said the work is something she’s called to do and gives her a sense of connection beyond herself.

“Everything I’m doing, the Universe put it in my lap. When the Universe puts something in your lap, you can say yes or no and you’re better off if you say yes.”


Written by IRC Volunteer Myung Oak Kim