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Greater Minnesota communities rapidly respond to COVID-19

“If there’s a need, the community will show up,” said Klara Beck, Fergus Falls community development manager, when asked what she’s seen in her community in the face of COVID-19. It’s an observation shared by partners across our Greater Minnesota communities.

In mid-March, the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships’ (RSDP) five regional boards invited community ideas for rapid responses to COVID-19. The goal was to identify innovative ideas across Greater Minnesota that could benefit from partnership and a small infusion of support. 

Within a month, RSDP boards had reviewed more than 50 ideas. Supported projects ranged from an effort of Bois Forte Nation to provide individual tribal elder hygienic care kits (Northeast RSDP) to a relief fund to aid Minnesota artists experiencing career-threatening emergencies (Southwest RSDP) to an emergency halal food supply hub to serve low-income Somali families (Central RSDP). “We have some great initiatives, many addressing urgent and future needs, building systems and safety long-term,” said David Abazs, Northeast RSDP executive director.

Following are examples – one from each RSDP region – of the innovative ways Greater Minnesota communities are responding to COVID-19.

Fergus Falls: Community food shelf

Like many organizations, the Fergus Falls Community Food Shelf faced concerns about how to continue operating safely in the wake of COVID-19. It was a concern that included both clients and volunteers. “We have a food shelf here in town that has a volunteer base that is mostly made up of elderly people,” said Klara Beck, the city’s community development manager. 

Rather than allowing the food shelf to close in a time of emergency, the City of Fergus Falls assumed food distribution duties on March 18, infusing staffing and infrastructure critical to safely continuing operations. One of the first steps was to solicit more volunteers who were not in high-risk populations. A call for volunteers was shared through the city Facebook page, local newspaper, and through word of mouth. “We ended up with a list of over 100 people who responded within a week, and they were all people under 60,” Beck said. 

New ways of operating

To accommodate social distancing needs, the city implemented a curbside pickup system. Staple items are provided in boxes intended to last about a month, reducing the number of trips people need to make to the food shelf. Two city staff or volunteers direct traffic and monitor food pickup outside the building. They also help those who are physically unable to lift their packages inside their vehicles while maintaining social distance. The food shelf building is relatively small, including close quarters where food is boxed and bagged, so the city also reduced the number of people in the space at any given time. “People drive up and grab their boxes and food without coming into contact with one another,” Beck said.

Adults working around a table with groceries for the food shelf
Volunteers maintain social distance at the Fergus Falls Community Food Shelf. Masks and gloves are worn when available.

In its first week of service, the City of Fergus Falls served 150 families through the food shelf. “We expect this number to rise during the next two weeks as Minnesota’s shelter-in-place order takes effect and more people become unable to shop for themselves,” Beck said when interviewed for this article in early April.

Community support

Partnerships with local organizations have been critical to maintaining services. These include partnerships with several local churches, local grocery store Service Food Market, and the North Country Food Bank. Ziegler CAT and Victor Lundeen Company are donating boxes for packaging. Central RSDP also provided support to the effort.

Two local librarians, Arielle Krohn and Emily Millard, stepped forward to support day-to-day operations. “Since our library is currently closed, we have two librarians who have taken over duties of assigning the volunteers,” Beck said. “That’s also been an amazing partnership. Just the fact that the library director was so willing and able to say, ‘I’ve got people, and let’s work together on this.’ The librarians’ brains are perfect for it.”

Looking ahead, Beck said the city’s ability to continue operating the food shelf will depend on the duration of the pandemic and support for the effort. “Right now we are super lucky to say we could comfortably keep it open for three to four months,” she said. “It’s really been a community effort.”

The community collaboration has left an impression. Asked what she’s learned about her community in the COVID-19 pandemic, Beck said, “I have learned that people will definitely step up.”

North Mankato: Distance learning for all ages

As COVID-19 closed many traditional places of gathering, North Mankato-based Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) saw potential for distance learning to provide points of connection for all ages, including seniors who may feel isolated. CILC works with nearly 200 content providers from around the world to provide lifelong learning opportunities online. These interactive programs connect participants to museums, zoos, musicians, authors, and a variety of learning experiences. 

“When people jump into a program like this, they’re going to feel a bit more connected,” said Mark Zallek, CILC business development director. “It helps with that feeling of, ‘We’re in this together.’”

Programming for all ages

When COVID-19 struck, CILC worked with its content providers to develop new programming for elementary schools. “Some of them are offering their content to the schools for no charge and for some, we are underwriting costs for the schools taking advantage of it,” Zallek said. CILC reached out to the Southeast RSDP for additional partnership support.

Two elderly people watching an online animal program
A couple enjoys a CILC presentation on desert animals from Peter Brunette of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

CILC is also developing new programming for seniors. When Mankato’s VINE Adult Community Center closed in-person programming due to COVID-19, CILC partnered with the organization to offer online learning opportunities for its seniors. “In conjunction with VINE and with funding from CILC and the Mankato Area Foundation, we are putting together some programming for their members that will be free of charge,” Zallek said. 

One early program offered through the partnership connected these Mankato-area seniors with the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota. Programming is scheduled for Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from mid-April through most of May, with the possibility of continuation. CILC is working on similar partnerships with faith organizations.

Joining forces

Asked what he is proud of in his community’s response to COVID-19, Zallek described the collaboration of local organizations such as the Mankato Area Foundation and Greater Mankato Area United Way. “They’ve joined forces to have a community response fund that they’ve been using to address immediate needs such as what they’re seeing for homeless people and students in need,” Zallek said. “It’s really heartening to see that type of effort and them joining forces for that type of thing.”

Two Harbors: Community Partners volunteer network

Community Partners of Two Harbors provides services that help older adults stay in their homes, including transportation, caregiver support, grocery shopping and social opportunities. As service needs increased in the face of COVID-19, Community Partners faced a challenge. “A lot of our volunteers are typically over 60,” said executive director Taylor Holm. 

Man on a ladder washing the outside of a window on a house.
Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson assists an elderly person with homecare as a Community Partners volunteer.

Community Partners needed to quickly recruit new volunteers who were not themselves in a high-risk population. With partnership support from the Northeast RSDP, Community Partners made an ask for new volunteers, and quickly recruited approximately 40 people. 

Existing older volunteers continue to provide critical services, but in ways that are less risky. “Our telephone reassurance program is a good way to use some of our older volunteers who may not be able to grocery shop anymore,” Holm said. “Companionship over the phone is a two-way street that way.”

Holm expressed gratitude for the local public health system and partnership across sectors to address community needs. “I’m learning how quick-action this community is, and [how] collaborative the Two Harbors area is and Lake County as a whole,” she said. “We’re not alone in trying to figure out how to navigate these uncertain times and looking out for the volunteers and population we serve. We’re hoping to raise awareness [about the needs of older adults]. We just care so much about them.”

Lakefield: Care baskets for home-bound elderly 

Two years ago, Lakefield-based nonprofit Kirby’s Closet was born out of Hilary and Brian Rossow’s vision for serving Southwest Minnesota families. Inspired by a gift drive in Sioux Falls, the couple started a nonprofit to provide gifts and basic supplies to Lakefield-area families at Christmas. In December 2018, 170 children were served through a holiday “store” set up in a church gymnasium. Families were able to shop for free using tickets to purchase coats, toys and necessities. The next year, 207 children were served through the holiday store. “There’s definitely a need, and we’re growing,” Hilary Rossow said.

Responding to emerging needs

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the Rossows saw potential for their small nonprofit to serve in new ways. In March, Kirby’s Closet collected a list of home-bound elderly and immunocompromised residents who needed basic hygiene and cleaning supplies. In addition to items like laundry detergent, shampoo and toothpaste, the baskets included ready-to-eat foods and word searches for entertainment. 

clothes basket full of cleaning and personal hygiene products
Care basket assembled by Kirby’s Closet.

“We created seven baskets, and were able to deliver them to people in need that week,” Rossow said. “By doing this, we hoped to reduce the risk of these residents coming into contact with COVID-19.” Southwest RSDP provided support for the effort.

The small nonprofit also found a new use for books left over from the most recent Christmas event. Kirby’s Closet made the books available free of charge for pick up at the Lakefield City Hall. “We told families to take as many as they needed to entertain readers stuck at home while schools are closed,” she said. “We ask that books be donated to schools or libraries once the COVID-19 risk has passed.”

Banding together

Asked what she’s observed in her community’s response to the pandemic, Rossow, whose husband serves as Lakefield Mayor, observed, “We’re all kind of banding together, and we’re all trying to help out where we can. Even with these two tiny projects we did, we’ve had a lot of support from the community.”

White Earth Reservation: Community victory gardens

For the past few years, the Akiing 8th Fire community development corporation has worked to build a local economy that upholds indigenous environmental values. The initiative launched a manufacturing facility near Pine Point on the White Earth Reservation to build solar thermal panels that turn sunlight into heat for homes and businesses. Prior to COVID-19, 8th Fire Solar had been prepared to launch dealer trainings, marketing and outreach, including attending trade shows, conferences and powwows. The pandemic put these plans on hold.

With a team of eight employees now in limbo, it was time to get creative. Some of the solar facility staff were redeployed to other projects, such as building greenhouses for the Anishinaabe Agricultural Institute, working with youth to provide culturally appropriate activities while school is closed, and planning for a get-out-the-vote initiative. 8th Fire also reached out to the Northwest RSDP for support in deploying staff to develop community “victory gardens” that would provide a reliable supply of fresh food to the local community. 

Native woman holding shucked corn cob with two children standing in a corn field
Honor the Earth executive director Winona LaDuke with her grandchildren.

Going local

“Suddenly the advantages of going local are abundantly clear, which has always been our mission from the start – to build an indigenous-based local economy,” said Pam Mahling of Honor the Earth, the Minnesota-based nonprofit that launched the 8th Fire initiative. Founded in 1993 by activist Winona LaDuke and Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, Honor the Earth works to advance indigenous environmental justice. 

The victory gardens will “help weather the storm and provide healthy, fresh food no matter what,” Mahling said, “in addition to getting people outside connecting with nature, which is going to be critical for everyone's mental health at this time.” Traditionally, victory gardens were gardens built on public and private grounds during times of war to increase self-sufficiency, build the community food supply, and boost morale. 

Living in community

“The project leans forward into this life that we’re called to live in community,” said Northwest RSDP executive director Linda Kingery. “There's a self-reliance, but also an interdependence that’s really at the center of it. It is a long-held tradition that can serve all of humanity.”

Caryn Mohr, May 2020

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP).

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