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State program for veterans winds down, but needs remain
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Almost exactly a year since it was first launched, a state grant program to help veterans through the pandemic is winding down, but there’s still significant precariousness among the more than 300,000 veterans who call Minnesota home.

With funding running low, Waseca County Veterans Services Officer Chris Hinton said he expects applications for the state’s COVID-19 Disaster Relief Grant and special needs grant to be shuttered by the end of the week, marking the end of the road for two programs that have provided a financial lifeline for veterans in need.

Hinton said that both grants were enormously beneficial for local veterans, especially those who had been on low or fixed incomes even before the crisis or who lost their jobs amid the pandemic and associated lockdowns. Nationally, the veteran unemployment rate spiked from historic lows in 2019 to double digits in 2020. In February 2019, the unemployment rate for U.S. veterans was 3.1%. This February, it’s at 5.2%.

Minnesota’s veterans had an unemployment rate of 8.3% in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It really went a long way toward helping them, especially if they lost their job,” Hinton he said of the programs.

The programs were funded as part of a $300 million coronavirus response bill passed by the Minnesota legislature at the end of last March. A few weeks later, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order authorizing the distribution of $6.2 million to the two grant programs. Both programs are available to all Minnesota veterans who have suffered economic hardship due to the crisis. With a short application process that can be completed online, the grants quickly get money to veterans that can be spent as needed.

The COVID-19 Disaster Relief Grant was a wholly new program that provides $1,000 for Minnesota veterans to help mitigate additional financial costs and economic damage due to coronavirus or the executive orders issued by Walz since March 13, 2020.

The other is an extension of the state’s long-established special needs grant program. Under the program, veterans can access up to $3,000 to cover essential expenses they would not be able to otherwise afford. Eligible expenses include utility bills, auto insurance, rent or mortgage payments, and medical bills. While veterans are normally only allowed to access the program once in a lifetime, an exception has been made for the COVID crisis.

Tracy McBroom, Rice County Veterans Services Officer, said that need has remained steady throughout the pandemic. According to McBroom, Rice County veterans received $53,000 in assistance through the two grant programs in 2020, and $17,000 in 2021.

With the Veterans Services Office shut down due to COVID, McBroom handles most requests for assistance over the phone. However, more technologically savvy veterans are able to get help through e-benefits as well.

A key part service provided by local Veterans Services Offices are the transportation vans, which often shuttle veterans to and from appointments at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis.

Over the last several weeks, daily van rides have shuttled veterans to the Veterans Affairs Hospital for COVID vaccines. Approximately 40% of the 120,000 veterans served by the VA in Minneapolis and St. Cloud have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, and the program opened to all veterans weeks ago.

In addition to Veterans Service Offices, American Legion posts have provided significant support for veterans throughout the pandemic. Dan Lee of Legion Post 43 in Faribault said that many of its members are currently living under significant financial distress.

“Shutdown has affected a lot of our members who don’t are financially strapped, who don’t have a lot of family members,” he said.

For much of last year, area Legions were closed due to the pandemic. Fast forward to now and veterans have begun returning, particularly as they receive their COVID vaccines. Yet the scars of the last year are likely to linger for some time.

Life under lockdown has been hard for many veterans. Veterans traditionally have elevated rates of suicide. Kirk Mansfield of the nonprofit 23 to Zero in Faribault, which focuses on reducing veteran suicide, noted that suicide hotlines have seen a massive increase in calls during the pandemic. Close to 20 veterans commit suicide each day, though a November report from the Department of Veterans Affairs found no clear evidence that COVID has contributed to a rise in veteran suicides.

Significant assistance

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Legion members and local organizations like Beyond the Yellow Ribbon have done what they can, providing help with everything from basic home repairs to helping moving. Lee added that significant assistance has been provided in collaboration with service agencies focused on helping veterans and non-veterans alike.

Tashia Klassen of the American Legion Post 77 in Owatonna noted that Legion-affiliated groups have continued to be involved with funerals and other local ceremonies. The Legion board has resumed meeting too, but there are certain events that still can’t be held because of the pandemic and might not for the foreseeable future.

Legions themselves has been put in a difficult position because of a financial loss from the bar and restaurant areas, which traditionally provide the dollars needed to keep the lights on and cover other fixed expenses.

While area Legions weren’t eligible for the kinds of state and federal grants that boosted many businesses, they did receive assistance from the federal Paycheck Protection Program as well as grant programs distributed by local governments, which often provided more flexibility.

Klassen said that things are improving on a weekly basis. A major part of that has been generous donations from the Sons of the Legion which has made several major contributions including a plexiglass area around the bar area that helps to ensure food is served safely.

How to keep a red panda entertained? Solutions earn Owatonna students recognition
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Local students are solving real world problems using their STEM skills in an effort to create a more comfortable environment for one Minnesota Zoo resident.

Two Owatonna Middle School students, Heather Walker and Phoenix Storm, were recently recognized during the annual Minnesota Zoo’s ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge. The challenge encourages students to create solutions for zoo-based problems using their creativity, math, science and engineering knowledge. This year’s challenge involved developing ideas to provide more enrichment for Min, a red panda living in the zoo’s Tropics Trail. The goal was to create a device to keep Min busy and entertained while supporting her natural behaviors.

“(The students) come up with everything on their own,” said Ray Heinz, Middle School science teacher. “Basically their only direction from the zoo is how to present their solution, and then what the goals are and the constraints.”

Heather Walker’s design for the 2021 Minnesota Zoo’s ZOOMS STEM Design Challenge won her first place in the challenge. Her design includes a number of puzzles which Min the red panda must solve in order to get her treat. (Photo courtesy of Ray Heinz)

Heinz has integrated the design challenge into his animal behavior class for the last couple of years, using it as the elective’s final project. The vast majority of his students love the project and suggest he continue using the project in his curriculum. Students get about a month to work on their project, with many excited to show off their hard work and unique projects. Top projects are then sent to the zoo to compete in the statewide challenge.

Local students bring home the award

Even though 27 Minnesota schools competed this year, two Owatonna students secured top awards. Winners were awarded family memberships to the zoo, day passes and certificates, according to Heinz.

“It’s pretty cool for them because I think it feels so much more real than just like, ‘hey, you got a school prize.’ It’s like, you’re getting this from the zoo, which is really cool,” Heinz said.

Heather Walker received first place for Enrichment Design with her Break-in Box and Cooling Box projects. The Cooling Box is intended to allow Min to cool off while in the Tropics Trail. The box is to be filled with snow or shaved ice and contains buried toys to motivate Min to interact with the ice and get active. The Break-in Box was designed to hide treats, and Min must solve puzzles in order to reach the tasty incentives.

Owatonna student Phoenix Storm placed third in the Enrichment Design category with his Wood Treat Box and Grape Vine Ice Ball. Storm’s Grape Vine Ice Ball device includes frozen grapes, Min’s favorite treat, inside a ball of grape vines to get Min to move around her enclosure.

Storm’s other project, Wood Treat Box consists of a chunk of wood capable of being hung, with slots to hide treats.

Phoenix Storm’s design features grapes frozen in ice inside a grape vine ball. Storm got third place for his design. The project doubles as a final project for Ray Heinz’s animal behavior class at Owatonna Middle School. “The whole (animal behavior) course is looking at what motivates animals to behave, how different animals just evolutionary have different behaviors, and then how we can use that to improve our communication and relationships with animals,” Heinz said. (Photo courtesy of Ray Heinz)

Walker and Storm were among the top students selected by the zoo to present their well-researched design virtually to a panel of zoo staff, engineers and other STEM professionals. Typically these students spend the day at the zoo and give their presentation on site, however this year the program was run virtually to allow students, regardless of learning model, to compete.

While the zoo shared some information about Min’s interest and fact sheets with the competitors, students were primarily responsible for their own research. Students had to figure out what their design would look like, how zookeepers would use their device and what they expect to see from the red panda behavior-wise. Meanwhile, students had to be cautious and avoid introducing potential safety hazards into Min’s enclosure.

Judges rated students’ research efforts, project innovation and overall plan to implement the device. The top three projects were awarded at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Students were also awarded prizes for categories such as conservation, innovation and teamwork, according to the design challenge website.

Students use skills applicable in real life

During the project, students were able to work through “real-time engineering processes,” Heinz said. Students came up with original designs, but often had to problem solve when issues in their original plan developed. With creativity, students further developed their ideas as they worked through the project’s hiccups.

“It’s like one little thing they find in the research can completely derail a plan and so there’s lots of communication with their peers and problem solving and kind of recycling through the engineering design process,” Heinz said. “I mean because there’s so many variables and there really truly isn’t a right answer, I think it’s about as close to like real-world engineering that you can really get in a classroom.”

Heinz says he is often impressed by his students’ ideas and hard work. He says that although students are nervous to present, they are very excited to have been selected and show off their device and how it can be applied at the zoo.

Under normal circumstances, students would have built 3D versions of their designs to present in-person, however this year the zoo dropped the physical build because they knew some students were working from home, according to Heinz. Additionally students would often work in teams in order to bounce ideas off of each other, but as long as students bounced their ideas off of teachers or parents they were able to participate.

This was a tough year for many students and teachers, but Heinz believes the creative project and its successes have been a highlight for his students.

“It was really rewarding,” Heinz said. “I was so happy for all of their hard work, and all of their focus. All their time really paid off.”

(Photo courtesy of Ray Heinz)

City board, commission members a vital link between residents, council

The city of Owatonna is looking for people interested in helping with one of the most crucial parts of the local government, though it’s also the most behind-the-scenes.

It takes roughly 80 community volunteers to fill every one of the city’s board and commission seats. Volunteers give input to city officials and staff on decisions regarding the airport, parks, planning and zoning, the West Hills Campus, parking and more. Currently there are open seats on the airport, planning and West Hills commissions.

Appointed by the mayor through an application process, volunteers review policies and proposals and make recommendations to the City Council. The boards and commissions provide an essential connection between the residents and the local government, with almost every decision the council votes on at one point passing through one of these advisory groups.

Councilor Kevin Raney, who served 12 years on the Parks Board before being elected to council, has tried to help gain interest for these positions. In January, Raney took to social media to call on community members who felt they would like to serve their community.

“We ended up with more than 12 people who showed interest in the Parks Board for just that one position,” Raney said. Though not everybody serves on an advisory board for the maximum of 12 years like he did, Raney said it’s not uncommon in Owatonna for board members to serve multiple terms as they are typically already passionate about the area iin which they serve.

“You don’t have to be scholars or experts in the area, but we want you to have a passion for that board,” Raney said. “It shouldn’t be about wanting to change just one thing, but wanted to help and serve your community as a whole.”

Asking important questions is a key component for anyone in these positions as the boards gather as much information as possible before making recommendations to the council.

“We as a council value their opinion very much,” Raney said. “They are kind of off the radar, but they are such an integral part every decision being made on the city level.”

Airport Commission

The purpose of the Airport Commission is to plan and promote the Degner Regional Airport in Owatonna by encouraging development and utilization. The commission reviews and advises the council and airport manager with the budget, provides a forum for airport users and community members, reviews airport manager recommendations of fees and charges, and reviews recommended policies for aviation and non-aviation facilities. The meetings are the second Thursday of each month at 5 p.m. at the airport. Appointment is for a three-year term and commissioners are eligible to serve two consecutive three-year terms.

Planning Commission

The Planning Commission prepares and keeps a current comprehensive plan, establishes principles and policies for guiding action affecting development, prepares and recommends ordinances and regulations to the council to promote orderly and economically sound development, and determines whether specific proposed developments conform to the principles and requirements of the comprehensive plan and city code. Meetings take place at the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at 5:30 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall. Appointment is for a three-year term and commissioners are eligible to serve two consecutive three-year terms.

West Hills Commission

The West Hills Commission assists in planning, promoting and encouraging the preservation of the West Hills property. Meetings are quarterly on the first Tuesday of January, April, July and October at noon in the Owatonna Arts Center. Appointment is for a three-year term and commissioners are eligible to serve two consecutive three-year terms.