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ba football captains

From left to right, seniors Bo Dienst, Riley Kangas, Elliot Smith and Lucas Linnemann are captains for the Bethlehem Academy football team this year. (Michael Hughes/southernminn.com)

Seniors, younger students benefit from pen pal program

Elmo Wisted enjoys visiting and talking about his family, so isolation during the pandemic was a bit hard for the Milestone Senior Living resident to overcome.

Wisted and other Milestone residents haven’t left the grounds, apart from doctors’ appointments, since staff closed the facility’s doors March 12 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But to increase connectedness with the rest of the community, around 30 residents have partnered with Faribault Lutheran School students for an intergenerational pen pal program.

“I’m really in favor of [the program], and I’m anxious to write to the penpal,” said Wisted, who turns 92 in a few days. “ … I don’t know how old the child is, but he’s pretty young, and he told me what he likes to do, and I’d like to make a reply to him and tell him more about myself.”

Milestone Senior Living resident Elmo Wisted is eager to get to know his pen pals from Faribault Lutheran School better as they exchange letters. (Photo courtesy of Milestone Senior Living)

Diana Kitzman, fourth-grade teacher at Faribault Lutheran School said her students are thrilled to participate in the pen pal program with the Milestone residents. Her students even include their senior pen pals in prayers at school.

“It’s not hard when they love it,” Kitzman said of the pen pal program. “It’s not even slightly a chore.”

FLS fourth grader Myris Gramse said she and her classmates asked their pen pals questions to get to know them better in their first letters. One question Gramse asked her pen pal, Murial, is “What’s your favorite color?”

Another fourth grader, Joey Affantranger, asked his pen pal, Dee, what games she likes, and fourth grader Braelynn Kenow said she asked her pen pal, Joan, what kind of food she likes to eat.

“We hope that they feel happy [receiving the letters] because they’re at home,” Gramse said.

Added Affantranger: “And that they feel secure.”

Students knew a little bit about their pen pals before writing their first letters because they received pictures of the participating residents standing beside a whiteboard that read “Will you be my pen pal?” along with their name and interests. These details helped students know which questions to ask.

Anne Pleskonko, life enrichment coordinator at Milestone Senior Living, believes students will remember the wisdom and stories of their senior pen pals. And the impact is twofold.

“What I think is most important is [the residents] feel connected to the community, and it’s a great way to strengthen the intergenerational connection during these unprecedented times,” Pleskonko said.

Apart from FLS, Bethlehem Academy seniors in their service learning class also write letters to over 50 residents at Milestone Senior Living to encourage them and let them know they’re not alone during the pandemic. Pleskonko said Milestone is also working out a partnership with Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in which students video record class projects or sporting events for the residents to watch. As the winter months approach, she continues to brainstorm other ways the community might help lessen the loneliness for residents.

Husband and wife Bob and Bonnie Hammer, Milestone residents, agree that the pen pal program is “going to be a lot of fun.”

“They wrote about what they like to do and what they like to eat and their favorite colors,” Bonnie said. “Mine are very young; one is in kindergarten and I think the other two are in first grade. One asked me what I like to eat, which I thought was sweet. So we’re just going to write and hope that we can keep this going.”

Bonnie Hammer, Milestone Senior Living resident, listed movies, reading and animals as her interests as part of the Faribault Lutheran School pen pal program. (Photo courtesy of Milestone Senior Living)

Bob Cox, a resident at Milestone Senior Living, participates in the pen pal program with Faribault Lutheran School students.

Bob said writing sentences appropriate for the students’ reading levels might come as a challenge (“I’m 89, so the first grade has been some time ago,” he said) but answering questions is easy. After receiving just one letter, he said he already felt less isolated.

“I’m anxious to write back to these little tykes,” Bob said. “ … I think it’s going to be great.”

Council moves cautiously toward pawn shop restrictions

After lengthy debate, a majority of Faribault’s City Council members seem ready to move ahead with a modified version of an ordinance that would limit the number of pawn shops downtown.

An ordinance to bar any pawnshop from being located within 3,000 feet of any other, was backed at the last full council meeting by a narrow four-vote majority of Councilors: Janna Viscomi, Tom Spooner, Royal Ross and Peter van Sluis.

However, after the meeting, Viscomi asked City Administrator Tim Murray for additional discussion on the topic. She said that in hindsight, the council should have solicited more feedback from City Attorney Scott Riggs before crafting the policy.

Murray’s Tuesday memo offered three clear options. The council could move forward with the ordinance it passed last Tuesday, redraft it to fit under the city’s zoning ordinance or institute a moratorium on issuing new pawnshop licenses while engaging in a longer-term discussion.

The second option marked a clear repudiation of the position stated by the city’s Planning Commission. The Planning Commission had initially considered the ordinance under the Zoning Code, but concluded it was a policy decision, not a zoning one.

While he wasn’t at the meeting to expand on his position, Riggs flatly disagreed with the Planning Commission’s decision. The city attorney maintains that even if the ordinance would go in the licensing section, it would still be considered part of the zoning code. Viscomi said she looks forward to hearing more from Riggs in regard to his judgment. She said that she strongly supports the idea of limiting pawnshops, but wants to do it in a way that is maximally enforceable and causes minimal problems for the city.

Still, the four councilors who initially backed the pawn shop limitation ordinance seemed prepared to embrace the city attorney’s recommendation. According to City Planner Dave Wanberg, the ordinance would have virtually the same effect.

The topic has been under discussion at city hall for more than a year, at the behest of Pawn Minnesota owner Frank Marzario. During that time it’s proven a controversial topic, despite a general distrust of the pawnshop industry.

A similar proposal, which would have mandated a 1-mile distance between pawn shops, was rejected by the council in 2018 under strikingly similar circumstances, with both Viscomi and Ross in favor along with Elizabeth Cap. This time, Cap found herself on the “no” side. Having given additional thought to the matter, she said that although there is a risk of stolen goods being pawned, supporters of the ordinance haven’t shown that its primary effect would be to ensure the safety of Faribault residents.

Despite voting for the proposed ordinance two years ago, Ross said he was interested in finding out exactly how most area businesses came down on the issue. According to the results of an informal survey he conducted, most favored restrictions on pawnshops.

Councilor Spooner was so eager to pass the measure that he suggested enacting the ordinance passed at last week’s meeting, and amending it if need be to accommodate the city attorney’s concerns.

According to the measure’s supporters, it is urgently needed because as noted by existing code passed by the council in 2018, pawn shops can provide an opportunity “for the commission of crimes and their concealment.”

Marzario has insisted that his business is different and that the city should feel safe if the local industry ends up in his hands because his pawnshop, Pawn Minnesota, has always gone above and beyond to minimize the risk of criminal element.

Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, while not weighing in on this specific ordinance, has said that Marzario’s shop has been fully compliant but that in general, law enforcement generally prefers fewer pawn shops in town due to the criminal risk.

To critics of the proposed ordinance, the city would be creating a slippery slope that other businesses could exploit to try to achieve their own anti-competitive measures and have accused Marzario of pushing the measure for personal gain.

Leading the criticism has long been Mayor Kevin Voracek. To the mayor, pawn shops may be less than desirable but allowing the free market to decide the number of pawn shops Faribault can support, a number which is likely to be limited, is the best route.

Throughout the debate, Councilor Jonathan Wood has fallen somewhere in the middle, struggling to find a common ground. He said that while he supports limiting the number of pawnshops, he feels the debate is “rushed.”

Citing Riggs’s advice from a meeting two weeks ago, Wood said that other options could and should be considered to limit the number of pawnshops. He said that Faribault’s approach would largely be novel and untested, in comparison to more typical restrictions like limiting the total number of pawn shops.

With the other councilors divided into two camps, Wood’s motion to table the issue for further discussion died without a second at last week’s meeting. However, both Cap and Viscomi later said they wished they had seconded it.

Wood said he isn’t sure how he would vote if the council moves forward with considering the proposed ordinance under the zoning code. While he supports the idea in theory, he said he’ll need to consider further whether setting a potentially problematic precedent is “the lesser of two evils.”

“I agree with the concept that I don’t want more pawn shops downtown,” he said. “But I don’t agree with the way that we’re going about it.”

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson, in his 23rd year of teaching at Faribault Public Schools enjoys reading, writing and working in the yard or garage on a project. (Photo courtesy of Faribault Public Schools)

1,250 tested for COVID-19 in Rice County as part of statewide approach

More than 1,250 COVID-19 tests are being administered in Northfield this week as the Minnesota Department of Health continues to expand asymptomatic testing to control the spread of the new virus.

Rice County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Tracy Ackman-Shaw said 442 tests were given Tuesday at Emmaus Church, 473 Wednesday, and 341 testing appointments were scheduled for Thursday.

Results are expected in 48-72 hours following testing. Similar testing is planned for next week in Faribault. The dates and location of the testing will be announced Thursday.

Ackman-Shaw said mass testing is critical because some people could have the virus while being asymptomatic and unknowingly spread the disease to others. People need to take personal responsibility in not spreading the virus, she said. By doing so, she said people can ensure schools and businesses remain open.

“It’s just a way for people to be able to make decisions themselves,” she said of testing.

Site Incident Commander Shawn Schloesser noted though mass testing can increase the number of positive local cases, that is only one data point Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education officials consider in deciding whether to implement further restrictions on schools and businesses. He that added mass testing can sometimes trace a COVID-19 outbreak to an assisted living facility, making the odds of the virus having been spread from schools low.

Schloesser, who was representing the State Emergency Operations Center, noted increasing numbers of COVID-19 positive tests are no longer being associated with events or employment. This week, state officials revealed the unknown community transmission rate for those who have been infected with the virus has reached a record high, causing trepidation from health officials who say that makes contact tracing more difficult.

The Northfield testing site was one of 22 selected by the Minnesota Department of Health across the state as part of a targeted four-week testing to expand the testing capacity of areas beyond local limits. Currently, Northfield Hospital & Clinics is only testing those who show COVID-19 symptoms. Schloesser said such mass testing could be extended in areas throughout the state beyond next week, and semi-permanent sites are possible in rural areas.

Many who contract COVID-19 experience mild or no symptoms, but some suffer life-threatening or deadly impacts. Those who are over the age of 65 or with severe comorbidities are at greatest risk of death from the virus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 107,000 COVID-19 cases and 2,154 deaths had been reported in Minnesota since virus tracking began in early spring. Nearly 2.2 million tests have been completed across the state, and 1.51 million people have been tested.

‘This was a nice setup’

Testing is undertaken through collaboration with the Emergency Operations Center, Minnesota Department of Health and Rice County Public Health. Also, Dakota County Public Health officials, Rice County Emergency Manager Jennifer Hauer-Schmitz and Northfield Police Department Chief Mark Elliott assisted with planning. The Minnesota National Guard was on hand for logistical work.

The state contracted with the company WareEvans for eight nursing staff and a nurse lead to conduct testing. Nurse Miriam Udofot, who has been testing people for the virus across the state since June, said Rice County had the most community support for testing she’s seen.

“This was a nice setup for a smooth operation,” Schloesser said.