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Nate Sevcik (center, pointing) directs the youth campers at the Faribault Ice Arena during a summer hockey camp. The Faribault Hockey Association has seen revenue from charitable gambling dry up with bars and restaurants closing. (Daily News file photo)

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As nonprofits struggle financially, GiveMN presents donation campaign

Let’s Smile, Inc. hasn’t quite lived up to its name recently, not when Executive Director Holly Jorgensen hasn’t seen the toothy grins on children’s faces since her nonprofit closed March 17 per government order.

Ordinarily, the Owatonna-based organization provides preventative dental care to children of families with State Insurance: Minnesota Health Care Plans or those without insurance. Since all dental services are closed during COVID-19, except in cases of extreme emergency situations, the nonprofit hasn’t received insurance reimbursement money. According to Jorgensen, Let’s Smile is also running out of grant funding to keep staff employed. That’s a major concern because when the service opens up again, dental hygienists need to be ready to go.

With large group gatherings suspended, Let’s Smile’s comedy night, a family-friendly fundraiser with the tagline “Let’s Smile, Giggle and Laugh” was canceled this summer. Jorgensen estimates about 5 to 10% of the organization’s annual funding comes from the comedy night proceeds.

Let’s Smile isn’t alone — all sorts of nonprofits across Minnesota are struggling to get the funding they need during pandemic. Offices are closed, large-group fundraisers have been canceled, and some of their ongoing needs have been brushed to the side thanks to COVID-19.

To increase awareness of nonprofits and schools and help them reach their financial goals, Minneapolis-based nonprofit GiveMN is hosting #GiveAtHomeMN May 1 through 8. The Office Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan has partnered with GiveMN and nonprofits and schools across the state to make the virtual funding event possible.

Participating in #GiveAtHomeMN requires little more than a few clicks of a mouse. Donors can search for nonprofits in their local communities on the givemn.org website and click on the nonprofits of their choice to complete donations. Each nonprofit has an individual page containing descriptions, financial goals, photos and contact information.

Donations through #GiveAtHomeMN may get a generous boost, as the Bush Foundation and U.S. Bank have helped make $68,000 in bonus grants possible. Every hour from May 1 to 8, GiveMN will award $250 in “Golden Ticket” drawings to randomly selected nonprofits. At the end of each day, GiveMN will also give away $2,500 in drawings. The earlier and more often donors give to an organization, the better the nonprofit’s chance of being selected as a winner.

“I just can’t wait to go back out there and take care of these kids and adolescents, that’s what I’m missing the most,” said Jorgensen. “So hopefully we’ll get a great response from GiveMN and just be able to stay afloat.”

As of Thursday, Let’s Smile reached 9% of it’s $25,000 goal through #GiveAtHomeMN. With the donations, Jorgensen said one of Let’s Smile’s biggest priorities is paying for additional personal protective equipment (PPE), which is currently hard to obtain. Jorgensen she’s on the waiting list for an order and expects prices to increase with the high demand. Another major priority is retaining staff and keeping them safe, since they won’t receive unemployment benefits. With preventative services being postponed, she expects to see an increase in dental concerns, so Let’s Smile needs to make sure PPE and employees are ready when the time comes to resume work.

There’s another big item on the wish list for Let’s Smile, one the staff intended to pursue this year before the coronavirus outbreak. Jorgensen said a van, which would transfer staff and dental equipment to the schools and daycares they visit, will still be a needed purchase once the service resumes. Right now, she’s using her 15-year-old vehicle.

“That’s probably one of the biggest things because we needed to have that transit van,” said Jorgensen. “Everything we do is mobile, so that was our big project this year, and that’s been put on hold.”

Project Friendship, a Northfield nonprofit that matches school-aged children with mentors attending St. Olaf or Carleton College, is another local organization hurting financially. Executive Director Holly Schoenbauer reported Project Friendship’s third-biggest fundraiser, the Carleton garage sale, was cancelled this year. That leaves Project Friendship down about $13,000, she said.

“We’re not planning on closing, just crossing our fingers and hoping we can figure it out,” said Schoenbauer. “Project Friendship is too important to close. Kids need mentors more than ever — and not just at-risk kids — every kid deserves a mentor … I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we need to figure it out.”

During stay-at-home orders, Schoenbauer said the program is actually growing. Many children are at home alone and unsupervised, and mentors are stepping up to meet their matches via Zoom to talk, help with homework, and play games. Currently about 350 matches participate in the program, and more referrals are coming in all the time.

As of Thursday, Project Friendship had 39 unique donors contribute through #GiveAtHomeMN. Up to $2,000 will be matched by longtime Project Friendship supporters.

“Any little bit helps,” said Schoenbauer.

The Rice County Historical Society, which normally ramps up for a wide variety of activities and museum tours for school students, is another nonprofit that needed to close its doors to the public. Executive Director Sue Garwood said the spring flea market was cancelled this year, the second half of a family genealogy series was postponed and the RCHS June fundraiser may merge with the October fundraiser.

“This is a time period of blossoming and really exploding activity at the museum here, and of course all of that has come to a halt,” said Garwood. “And we understand, we want everyone to stay healthy.”

Many RCHS volunteers are at retirement age, so Garwood is especially concerned that they’re safe at home. Several of them continue RCHS projects, like updating news archives and restoring antique objects, at their own houses. Met-Con has also reroofed the Historical Society building.

But caring for grounds and exhibits requires funding, and Garwood said the museum needs funding in particular for a project set to open later in the fall: the Tin family. The tin family was formerly located outside Lockerby Sheet Metal and Roofing building in Faribault, and Butch Lockerby donated the set to RCHS for preservation. The metal group consists of a man over 20 feet tall with his wife, baby in a buggy and a dog. Currently, Garwood said the woman is being rebuilt off site and volunteers are cleaning and painting the baby and buggy piece, and dog off site.

“We thought this program through GiveMN was good timing for us, and really an opportunity to be out there with all the other good organizations that are worthy of donations,” said Garwood.

Amidst pandemic, Walk MS goes virtual

Walk MS, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s largest annual fundraiser, is a Faribault springtime tradition that stretches back more than two decades and often includes more than 500 walkers.

Faribault is one of more than 500 communities across the U.S. that has regularly participated in the tradition. Since Walk MS’s inception, more than $1 billion has been raised through the program for the National MS Society. The nonprofit organization has poured that money into programs for people living with MS as well as crucial research, in hopes of finding a cure for the deadly disease, or at least more successful treatments.

Given the strict restrictions on in-person gatherings implemented in the wake of coronavirus, marches like the one that was planned Saturday in Faribault have been cancelled. Instead, the MS Society is encouraging people to do virtual walks instead.

In addition to changing the format of the walk the MS Society has extended its registration deadline until Sept. 30, giving MS Society supporters months to organize their teams and hopefully, time for the pandemic to begin to lift.

“We want to give people the opportunity to fundraise once we’re through the heaviness of this pandemic,” said Megan Nettleton, who oversees the program as the Senior Director of the MS Society’s Minneapolis-based Upper Midwest Chapter.

For those who are in a position to give during these economically stressful times, the National MS Society will hold a Facebook Live fundraiser to connect walkers from all over the nation on what would normally be the Society’s biggest event weekend.

Like many nonprofits, the pandemic has inflected a great deal of stress on the National MS Society. Nettleton said that the society expects to lose approximately $60 million during the pandemic.

“For us, continuing to fundraise is more important than ever,” Nettleton said. “We want to be able to support the programs, services and resources that help people to live their best lives.”

Longtime Faribault resident Tom Beatty has lived with MS for more than two decades and participated in the local walk since its inception. This year, he’ll be participating from home by taking a walk around the neighborhood.

“It’s something that will be drastically missed this year,” he said.

The MS Society’s fundraising model is heavily team based. Beatty said that in a normal year, Faribault area walkers form roughly 20 to 25 teams, with each team containing anywhere from a couple of members to more than 20.

The teams compete to raise as much money as possible from family and friends. Leading teams from each local walk are honored by the Upper Midwest MS Society at an annual banquet.

Over the years, Beatty has built up a long list of friends and family members who support the cause. Normally, he’d be sending out letters to them around this time of year, asking for their support of the MS Society.

Of course, this year is different. Beatty said he doesn’t feel comfortable asking for donations at a time of financial hardship for so many. But he urged those who can to strongly consider supporting the MS Society in its efforts to help Americans living with multiple sclerosis.

“Any donations to the MS Society are always greatly appreciated,” he said.

Commissioner questions process for selecting architect for jail study

The Rice County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved a contract for a study of its main jail despite strenuous objections from Commissioner Galen Malecha.

Malecha, who represents the majority of the city of Northfield, insisted that proper procedures weren’t followed in soliciting proposals from firms interested in completing the study, which would look at the existing facility and state requirements for jails, and present options for meeting those requirements. Discussion about a study followed a notification last summer from the Minnesota Board of Corrections that it planned to limit how long individual prisoners could be held at the downtown jail to 90 days.

In a July 2019 report, DOC officials found that the facility’s recreational space or programming for inmates doesn’t meet state standards. The county has a second facility, a jail annex on Hwy. 60, but unlike the main jail, it’s not designed to hold higher security and special needs inmates that the main jail on Third Street NW houses.

While the county could move inmates to jails in other counties, Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn estimated the cost to use other counties’ jail space and to transport prisoners between those jails and the courthouse at about $500,000 annually.

Malecha expressed particular concern that the initial request for proposals was scrubbed and that a second solicitation was made, at times implying that the process was deliberately manipulated. He also questioned why the board hadn’t been updated about the status of the request for proposals, the modification and a panel which reviewed the requests received.

“When we’re going to spend the kind of money we are, we need all the commissioners involved in the process,” he said. “We did not approve a new process.”

While the contract for the study, approved by a 3-2 vote Tuesday, is expected to cost the county about $48,500, renovations to the jail or possibly a new jail could easily run into the tens of millions of dollars. Malecha and Commissioner Jake Gillen voted not to approve the contract.

Approval process

The process for requesting proposals (RFP) for professional services typically starts with the board approving the request and its verbiage. Once requests are received they’re evaluated based on predetermined criteria and a recommendation to contract with the preferred firm is made to the board.

But in this case, commissioners didn’t approve the RFP, instead telling the sheriff in late July that the need for a study and possible upgrades to the jail was urgent and to move ahead.

The RFPs were sent to several firms with a potential interest Oct. 7 and due in early December, but only one proposal was received, according to County Administrator Sara Folsted. That was concerning, she said, noting that it’s preferable to have several options to review.

Both Dunn and Folsted said they’d heard from other interested firms that the RFP was extremely complex and seemed to indicate the county was ready to build a new jail, even though it wasn’t. Dunn said he approached the County Attorney’s Office looking to restart the process, and was told that since the one proposal received by deadline hadn’t been opened that he could legally start anew.

Malecha on Thursday said he’s not looking to cast blame, but felt the process was flawed almost from the start.

“I still have questions about rejecting an RFP if (the board) didn’t vote on an RFP,” he said.

A revised request for proposals sent out early this year with a deadline of March 6 elicited two proposals. Both firms were interviewed by a panel consisting of Folsted, Dunn, Sheriff’s Office staff members and Commissioners Dave Miller and Jeff Docken, the board chair and vice chair. The panel unanimously selected Klein McCarthy Architects, a firm the sheriff says has a great deal of experience working with law enforcement and public safety.

Klein McCarthy has 60 days to begin working on the study which will then be sent to a Jail Committee for review. That committee will be appointed at Tuesday’s board meeting.