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BBBS mentors offer support, career exposure to 8th grade students
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Kurt Halverson of Owatonna had always wanted to be a Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) mentor, but between work and family, he didn’t have the time to dedicate to the program — until this past year.

Through a new program of BBBS Southern Minnesota, Halverson has connected with his Faribault Middle School “Little” during the workday. Specifically targeting eighth graders in AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) programs at Faribault, Owatonna and Waseca middle schools, Bigs and Littles “meet” virtually for 30-minute sessions twice a month.

“I really enjoyed it,” Faribault Middle School eighth grader Fatuma Guhad told the Faribault School Board at its May 24 meeting. “It’s really fun. It’s kind of like having a friend, but like older than you.”

Like other BBBS programs, Bigs and Littles are matched according to a number of factors such as common interests, personality types and life outlooks. Since the purpose of AVID is to help students sharpen the skills they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond and expose them to college and career options, AVID Littles are matched, if possible, with Bigs who work in career fields they want to explore.

“When I first met my Little, I was amazed at what a great match we were,” Halverson said. “My Little loves basketball, and I don’t know much about basketball, but through our experience he’s been able to teach me more about it and what the sport means to him.”

Halverson said he’s talked with his Little about ways to apply sports skills to the classroom and life at home. Although they only met virtually throughout the school year, Halverson got to play basketball with his Little when AVID students met their Bigs in person for the first time last week.

Last week, Faribault Middle School AVID students who participate in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program met their mentors in person for the first time. Throughout the year, these students and eighth graders from Owatonna and Waseca met virtually with “Bigs” twice a month. (Photo courtesy of Connie Hart)

BBBS “Bigs” and “Littles” were matched through AVID programs at middle schools in Faribault, Owatonna and Waseca this year. Many of the pairs didn’t meet each other in person until the end of the school year, like this match at Faribault Middle School. (Photo courtesy of Connie Hart)

BBBS mentors, like Kurt Halverson, and eighth grade AVID students connected virtually throughout the academic year. At Faribault Middle School, the matches met in person for the first time last week and engaged in sports and other activities. (Photo courtesy of Connie Hart)

“The other really neat thing is it’s not just about me helping him grow, but he’s also helped me to grow as well,” Halverson said. “I’m doing online classes for my bachelor’s degree, and when I was talking to him about some struggles I was having, he was able to talk me through that. And that’s so cool to have an eighth grader giving a 40-year-old advice.”

An added support

Megan Horton, community outreach coordinator for BBBS of Southern Minnesota, said the idea of matching Bigs with AVID students started during COVID-19, when mentors couldn’t meet with Littles at school. Going back to the drawing board, and considering the difficulty of finding matches for middle school students, Horton said BBBS met with AVID coordinators and teachers to find out the needs of these students.

For AVID eighth graders in particular, BBBS found out students needed more exposure to future possibilities. Many AVID students will be the first generation in their families to go to college, and some are first generation students, so their exposure to certain educational concepts may not come from home.

Another challenge particular to eighth graders is the transition from middle school to high school. Since the mentorship lasts for two years, eighth graders will reconnect with their Bigs when school resumes in the fall.

“The transition from middle school to high school can sometimes be overwhelming for students,” said Owatonna Middle School AVID teacher Mara Halverson. “[With BBBS] we are able to give students the opportunity to connect with another person in the community that may help make the transition easier with the hopes of greater academic success as they start their new journey at high school.”

Instead of relying on Bigs to create plans with their Littles, Bigs involved in the AVID program can simply go to the AVID Virtual Academy on the BBBS Southern Minnesota website and access activities and conversation prompts that help solidify a relationship. Even post pandemic, Hart said the program will continue its virtual format so it remains accessible for volunteers.

“The relationship that was formed in a lot of these matches was really impactful and went beyond that 30 minutes twice a month,” Horton said.

During an irregular school year that involved shifting education models throughout the pandemic, Faribault Middle School AVID teacher Connie Hart said any type of consistency was important to students. Meeting with a mentor biweekly was something they could count on no matter the learning format.

“Middle schoolers can have few words, but they really did appreciate that bond, just that positive adult influence in their lives,” Hart said. “A lot of them do have that at home and connect with teachers at school, but this just added a new element … I think that relationship will only increase going forward with those students.”

Council eyes ordinance enforcement officer to tackle property complaints
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With property maintenance and code enforcement complaints coming in almost daily basis, the city of Faribault is sometimes enforcing violations reported years before.

To ease that backlog, be more proactive and prevent property values from decreasing, Community and Economic Development Coordinator Deanna Kuennen said Tuesday that she’s looking to add a new property maintenance/zoning enforcement technician to focus on those issues. The position would focus on exterior property maintenance and zoning ordinance violations citywide, and project closeouts. The Faribault City Council supported her request with two dissenting voices: Royal Ross and Janna Viscomi.

Kuennen plans to have the job description for council consideration as early as Tuesday.

Kuennen noted the topic has been a source of discussion since before she began her employment with the city six and a half years ago. She said in a memo that the council considered the creation of a new fire/property maintenance inspector position in late 2017-18, a role the council agree would develop and implement a downtown property maintenance program, which over time was expected to become citywide. However, at the end of 2019, the council said it was not interested in extending the program beyond downtown. While the position remains in the budget, it’s not filled. Faribault does not have any dedicated staffers focusing on property maintenance and instead relies on a planning/rental housing technician to inspect reported code violations on a complaint basis, time permitting.

“This position will strengthen the city’s efforts to ensure the life, safety and welfare of its residents,” Kuennen wrote in a memo to the council. “Also, the addition of this position, with specific zoning enforcement responsibilities, will allow planning staff time to focus on critical planning efforts, including approving zoning certificates in a timely fashion, streamlining the development process, and proactively undertaking meaningful planning efforts in coordination with the City Council (such as a small area planning to development or redevelopment in the city).”

Kuennen, who noted code enforcement is a top issue for many Faribault residents, said there are structures within the city not allowed by code and unwanted by the council. However, she added staff doesn’t currently have the capacity to handle these reports. She called the current code enforcement process “time-consuming,” with multiple steps, including an inspection, written letter and documentation before any legal action is taken.

As evidence of the need to proactively address such properties, Faribault City Administrator Tim Murray mentioned the poor condition Columbia Hall was in before it was torn down. Built in the early 1900s, Columbia Hall, at 27 Third St. NW, had a 10-by-20-foot hole in its roof prior to its October 2019 demolition.

Though the position is being advertised as “proactive enforcement,” Councilor Ross saw the role as making any hire feel like it is necessary to find as many violators as possible to prove the position is valuable. He said he pictured the position as possibly placing an improper focus on perceived minor violations.

“I’m not sure that’s what I want,” he said.

Viscomi said she does not hear many positive comments on how the city enforces such issues and expressed a desire for staff to form positive public connections. She said the last thing on her mind was how to actively enforce such violations.

Mayor Kevin Voracek and Murray disagreed. Murray said the position’s duties would be to find violators who need to bring their properties up to code.

Four members of meth trafficking ring sentenced to prison
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Four people arrested following the seizure of an estimated $1 million in meth in Faribault in April 2020, have been sentenced to prison for their roles in a Twin Cities-based methamphetamine trafficking ring.

The Rice County Sheriff's Office and two area drug task forces — the Cannon River Drug & Violent Offender Task Force and Southeast Minnesota Gang and Drug Task Force — assisted with the investigation conducted by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

Brandon Earl Swanson, 41, of Crystal, was sentenced to 144 months in prison and five years of supervised release. Jared William Merta, 40, of Montrose, was sentenced to 170 months in prison and five years of supervised release. Wayde Salem Salwei, 46, of Minnetonka, was sentenced to 132 months in prison and five years of supervised release. Katherine Byrd Campbell, 33, of Rochester, was sentenced to time served and five years of supervised release.

Co-defendants Lucas Jay Madison, of St. Paul, and Mark Oren Schorn, also of Montrose, were previously sentenced by Judge Eric C. Tostrud to 235 and 180 months in prison, respectively.

According to court documents, between March 2020 through at least April 2020, the defendants were involved in a large-scale methamphetamine trafficking operation.

On April 14, 2020, law enforcement stopped Madison and Campbell near Faribault, as they traveled back from Phoenix, Arizona. Law enforcement conducted a search of the vehicle and recovered approximately 23 pounds of methamphetamine contained within a backpack. The methamphetamine was intended for delivery to multiple co-conspirators in the Twin Cities and surrounding metropolitan area.

Both Madison and Campbell were charged in Rice County court, but prosecutors dismissed those in May 2020 in favor of federal charges which tend to be harsher.

On the same day, law enforcement conducted multiple search warrants, including Merta’s and Schorn’s apartments in Montrose, Madison’s apartment in St. Paul, and Madison’s car detailing business in Bloomington,, where Madison, Swanson and other co-conspirators conducted their operations. As a result of these searches, law enforcement agents recovered more than $100,000 in U.S. currency, another pound and three quarters of methamphetamine, three handguns, multiple digital scales, THC cartridges, multiple cell phones, and other drug paraphernalia.

Also assisting with the investigation were the Anoka Hennepin Drug Task Force, Wright and Anoka County Sheriff’s offices, the Minnesota State Patrol and the Edina Police Department.