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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

Medford senior Izzy Reuvers (center) joined classmates Emma Kniefel (left) and Kiley Nihart for a commemorative college signing day on Tuesday, Feb. 11, roughly a month before the MSHSL took its first action in what ultimately became the cancellation of the entire spring season. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

spotlight centerpiece
Owatonna native, a former Explorer, hired as police department's new CSO

When Gabby Flemming first signed up to be an Owatonna Police Explorer, she figured it would be something fun to do while vetting the different paths her life could take.

Never did the Owatonna native imagine that four years later, at the age of 19, she would officially become a member of the OPD. Last month, Flemming was one of two new additions welcomed to the department — though she’s far from being a new face in the building.

“I’ve been known around the department for a while,” said Flemming, who’s been hired as a community service officer. “But now that I’m actually in it and a part of it, I really feel like I belong there. It feels right and that this is what I should be doing.”

Flemming said that during her years as an Explorer – a program designed to provide young men and women interested in law-enforcement careers with accurate career information, experience in the field and hands-on training — she was able to discover both her self-confidence and her deeply rooted passion for helping people.

“The last competition that I was at I was in a team that placed fourth in the domestic crisis scenario against 500 different explorer groups,” Flemming said, adding that she was able to work her way up to sergeant with the Explorers. “Explorers had already really boosted my confidence, but I knew then that this is what I wanted to do and could do. I really like helping people and seeing the other officers when they are helping people makes me want to be here, too.”

Last summer, Flemming joined the volunteer police reserve in Owatonna because she was determined to continue her journey with the police department as well as give back more to the community she loves. She was able to take part in ride-alongs with officers on patrol, help at different events such as the Holiday Train, and volunteer through a multitude of programs such as Toys for Tots.

“I did as much volunteering as I could, I signed up for literally anything available,” Flemming said. “This town means a lot to me and the more I am involved, the more I know it is my home and I don’t want to leave.”

In the beginning of April, Flemming received her community service officer certification and officially became an Owatonna Police Department staff member. She said that the accomplishment felt surreal at first, but that she’s also never been so sure of anything.

“Everything now is very hands on, which is how I learn,” Flemming said. “We as CSOs are in charge of the animal shelter, we help with park checks, businesses checks, downtown parking – really we are just helping any way that we can to make sure our officers aren’t overloaded.”

Flemming is currently attending school through Riverland College for law enforcement and slated to graduate in the fall. She said that she plans to continue working toward a bachelor’s degree and further her career with the department.

“My goal is to work up from patrol to maybe a detective,” Flemming said of her aspirations. “I’ve always wanted to be in the child protective service aspect or some kind of human relations, but either way I know I want to be in Owatonna.”

As a word of advice for teenagers who were maybe like Flemming herself — unsure of what direction in life they wanted to go — Flemming strongly recommends giving the Owatonna Police Explorers program a try.

“It has changed my life in so many way, I could never thank the advisors enough,” Flemming said. “I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do and I would not have it any other way now. They make you feel special and that you can do something to make a difference.”

The Owatonna Police Department also welcomed Jeremy Katz as a new police officer in April. Katz, who is originally from northern Minnesota, is a graduate of St. John’s University – Collegeville and has previous experience working as a security office in a north metro hospital.

Local seamstresses contribute to statewide mask donation effort

As of Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz estimated that more than 137,430 masks had been donated during a statewide drive for the personal protective equipment – or PPE.

Many of those masks were handmade by quilters and seamstresses throughout the state. And while it’s hard to pinpoint and exact number of local masks that have been made, Steele County has certainly seen the impact.

18-year-old Delaney Levy, of Owatonna, made roughly 100 masks to give out in the community since the stay-at-home order was first put in place.

“My dad was the one who mentioned to me that the hospital was looking for handmade masks,” Levy said. “He knew how much I enjoyed sewing and thought it would be a good way to spend my time.”

Enlisting the help of her 12-year-old brothers, Dawson and Dalton, Levy was able to sew 86 masks for the Owatonna Hospital. Since then, she decided to make a post on Facebook that she would be willing to make a mask for anyone living in Owatonna, free of charge.

“I thought it was important for me to do something to help out in these times,” Levy said. “I’ve always enjoyed sewing random projects, but never thought my sewing would be needed so much.”

Levy is one of many around the county who have taken advantage of their time at home to construct cloth masks for those in need, whether it be first responders, high risk individuals or those working at organizations still working directly with the public. The quilting and sewing club at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Owatonna – which typically focuses on constructing quilts for missions, graduations and baptisms — have been hard at work helping Steele County Public Health distribute the masks to those who need them most.

“We knew there was a request out and a need for masks, and we knew that we had the know-how to get it done,” said Barb Brown, who has been working as the unofficial coordinator for the group’s cloth masks project. “We were a group of 12 initially, now we are up to 19 ladies ranging from a young, busy mother in her 20s up into a few in their 70s.”

To date, that group has constructed and donated 1,746 masks in the community, and plans to continue making masks so long as there is a local demand.

“There’s still a lot of demand, and we don’t know how long that will continue or even how many uses you can get out of just one masks since they need to be washed after each use,” Brown said. “But all our (seamstresses) are feeling really enthusiastic about it, it feels like we are really doing something for our community.”

Brown said that the masks her group has been making have been distributed to clinics, prisons, daycares, nursing homes,and other areas that Public Health has been coordinating with. She added that at least one-third of the masks made go directly to individuals in the county whom they personally know are in need.

“We just wanted to know what the best way was to get our masks out to the most vulnerable in the community,” Brown said. “We had different people making requests, but Public Health really has it covered when it comes to knowing the places they are most needed.”

Levy echoed Brown that it feels good to know that individuals such as health care workers are able to benefit from her sewing project. And, she added, that with each donation she truly feels like she is making a difference.

“Health care workers do so much for the community and my donation of masks was my way and my family’s way of saying thank you,” Levy said. “The stay-at-home order has been difficult, but making the masks for the hospital and community has given me something to do and I’m glad it was for the betterment of Owatonna’s community.”

The announcement went out to all Minnesota superintendents during a private COVID-19 update call with state Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker on Tuesday. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP, Pool)

As nonprofts 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.