Another victim of COVID-19 has been claimed, this one reverberating throughout the region’s low-income community.
The Salvation Army Northern Division announced Friday the permanent closing of four “Family Store” thrift stores in outstate Minnesota — including the one located on Western Avenue in Faribault — due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The other store locations are in Cloquet, Morris, and Fairmount.
The closures saying effective immediately, with the Faribault location shuttering early Friday morning. Signs were posted at both the front and the back of the building stating that they were officially out of business and encouraging people to contact their case worker if they’re in need of emergency assistance.
For store manager Jennifer Velardi, the announcement was heartbreaking, but not a surprise.
“We’ve been closed for six weeks,” Velardi said. “But really with the Goodwill opening a block from us — that was a big hit in our budget from the moment they opened.”
Goodwill Industries International is a nonprofit organization with the money its thrift stores make going towards community programs such as job training, placement services, and classes for people who have disabilities or are otherwise challenged in finding traditional employment.
For Velardi, one of the most difficult parts of closing the store is not knowing where customers with limited resources, but who are in need of essential items will go for help. Velardi said that it wasn’t uncommon for the store to write vouchers for those who couldn’t afford necessary items such as winter clothing.
“The great thing about the Salvation Army was that if you really needed something and couldn’t afford it that we’d write you vouchers,” Velardi said. “If kids came in that didn’t have winter coats and their parents couldn’t afford them, I would just give them to them. I’m not about to have kids going to school in the middle of winter without a jacket.”
According to a news release, the decision to close these stores is a result of the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the restrictive retail climate being anticipated in the post-pandemic environment. As a result, 19 part-time and full-time positions are being phased out. In Faribault, the employees include Velardi and five others, as well as several volunteers.
“This is the type of decision that is tough to make because it has an impact on staff and the communities we serve,” said Lt. Colonel Lonneal Richardson, commander of The Salvation Army Northern Division. “Because of the lost revenue from being closed and the challenging retail environment ahead, these stores would not be financially viable in the COVID-19 era.”
Richard also made it clear that these store closings would not affect the social service programs operated by the Salvation Army in these communities. Food distributions, emergency assistance, and other social services will continue unabated in their current locations except for Faribault, whose social service office will operate out of the Owatonna location until a new Faribault location is selected.
Cathy Thielbar, the case manager for the Salvation Army in both Rice and Steele counties, said that she hopes to get set up at a local church once she is able to return to Faribault. In the meantime, however, she will continue to take on Rice County cases as usual.
“I am definitely concerned not being in Faribault because a lot of the people that we serve come to the store on a bus as they don’t have transportation,” Thielbar said. “It’s going to be hard and I don’t know what we’re going to do about that population — there is a high amount of people in Rice County that are very low income.”
Thielbar hopes that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Faribault will be able to assist some of the clients she normally served until she is able to reopen an office in the community.
A representative from St. Vincent de Paul assisted store staff Friday to help move whatever inventory the society could use to its Third Avenue NW location. The remainder of the inventory will be sent to the Owatonna store and wherever else individuals in need could access them, according to Velardi.
“It’s just so sad that we won’t be here for the people,” Velardi said. “The store that actually helps people is the one that is closing.”
As Minnesotans everywhere continue to adjust to the “new normal” that is wearing face masks and practicing safe social distances, members of the community are facing additional obstacles to this way of life.
For those who are hard of hearing or part of the deaf community, the barrier between faces only enhances the language barriers already in place. Kim Barron, the director of communications at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault, said that COVID-19 has not only impacted everyone’s daily life exponentially, but has further inhibited fluid communication for those who are identify as deaf or having hearing loss.
“I can’t speak for individuals who don’t use sign language, but I can speak to my own experiences and a person who uses American Sign Language,” said Barron, who was born “profoundly deaf” and identifies as a culturally deaf person and part of the deaf community. “With ASL, yes we use our hands to communicate, but facial expressions make up half of it. We use our eyebrows, eyes, mouth and our face to convey messages.”
For example, Barron explained that the word ‘sick’ can mean something different in ASL based on the speaker’s facial expression. When the sign is meant to express physical ailment, the person would also show a sad or depressed expression. If they’re trying to express that something is great or awesome, their face would show amazement. The same sign can also be used to express disgust, where they would show a disgusted expression.
Barron shared a personal example where her elder mother living in another state had to be hospitalized after a fall. Barron’s brother sent a video message to the rest of the siblings, all deaf, to try to share an update on their mother’s condition.
“Since he was in the hospital waiting room he had to wear a mask while he was signing his message to us,” Barron said. “It was very difficult for us to understand what he was trying to say with half of his facial expressions covered, I had to re-watch his video a couple of times to get the gist of the message.”
Aside from facial expressions, Barron said that face masks present another obstacle for those who may rely on reading lips. While lip-reading is never completely accurate, Barron said that those who do rely on it are inconvenienced when someone they are trying to communicate with have their mouth covered – though it is largely unavoidable given the global pandemic.
Social distancing has also impacted the way those who identify as deaf or hard of hearing communicate, with one area woman saying that it is especially hard for those a part of the deaf-blind community.
“The deaf-blind individuals who depend on touch are not able to get support they need due to social distancing,” said Chelsea Paulson, a member of the deaf community who has experienced her own difficulties with communication during a time of social distancing. “I needed some assistance and I appeared like I was carrying the plague, attempting to communicate with this poor employee, approaching and breaching the social distancing.”
Barron echoed Paulson’s concern for social distancing, adding that her husband — who is also deaf but has some hearing — has experienced direct difficulties at his job.
“He works at a store and part of his duties is stocking the shelves. He is often approached by customers looking for something and with the masks it is very challenging,” Barron said. “He relies on lip-reading and using his residual hearing and needs to move closer to the other person to understand them. But with social distancing he is unable to move closer.”
Barron said that her husband has started carrying a pen and paper around to give to customers if he can’t easily understand them, a common method of adapting for those deaf and hard of hearing during this time. Barron uses her phone to type out messages in as large a font as possible when communicating with someone who does not know ASL, as does Paulson. Barron said that post COVID-19, the phone has become a more regular part of her communication due to the additional obstacles of face masks and social distancing.
“I now stay at a safe distance and use as large of font as possible on my phone and hold it out so they can lean from where they’re standing and read my message from there,” she said. “The other person will have to take out their phone and type their message to me, which is a bit awkward.”
Paulson, who lives in Waterville, has had similar uncomfortable experiences, but tries to maintain a positive spirit and a sense of humor as everyone is learning how to maneuver in today’s society.
“I tried to order food from McDonald’s with my three children in the back of the van. I did not do the app ordering right, so the teenage employees didn’t understand what I was trying to do as the order code didn’t show up,” Paulson said. “The employee wore a mask, realized that I am deaf and resorted to gesturing. Befuddled, I drove forward and parked in the ‘order pick up’ section and figured it out. I ended up paying $30 total for my massive McDonalds’ unintentional order – but as least the chicken nuggets were good and I got my Mello Yello!”
Barron said that she’s read various articles about the production of clear masks and that she hopes that will gain popularity to help assist with the communication barrier, but for now she encourages others to consider using phone apps like InkPad or CardZilla to help bridge the language barrier. In an ideal world, Barron joked that everyone would learn sign language – to which Paulson readily agreed.
“We are more educated are more careful nowadays compared to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918,” Paulson said. “Just be patient and be kind — we can always wash our hands vigorously after interactions with each other.”
Jim O’Connor may grow his corn on a 150-year-old family farm in Blooming Prairie, but his work as an advocate in the ag industry spans nearly half the globe.
Recently re-elected to the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council, O’Connor and his peers help fund exploration into efficiency, sustainability and new markets for the state’s corn growers. Heading into his second three-year term on the board, O’Connor said he is especially passionate about expanding ethanol infrastructure and discovering new uses for his product such as plastic, alternative fibers and — especially relevant today — hand sanitizer.
Before becoming vice chair this year, O’Connor served on the production stewardship team, which focused on one of the first steps in the corn supply chain.
“We looked at different kinds of farming practices — cover crops would be an example — ways to reduce our nutrient losses, different fungicides and different ways to control diseases,” he added. “It’s work that benefits all corn farmers.”
In general, the council’s primary job is to determine which projects and research endeavors to fund. In 1990, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association worked to pass a law that created the council and also provided for a ½-cent per bushel to be collected at the point of sale.
Now up to 1 cent, this money is allocated by the council for the purposes of promotion, education and research in the Minnesota corn industry.
Having farmed independently for almost four decades, O’Connor said he initially ran for a seat on the board in order to see where this money went.
“The reasons I got involved were, number one, I wanted to see how those dollars were invested firsthand,” he said. “The other reason was that it was a way of making a contribution to the agricultural community and giving back to future generations.”
As a Blooming Prairie resident, O’Connor represents District 8 on the 11-person council, made up entirely of industry farmers. This region runs from Rice and Steele counties in the east, all the way over to Brown and Watonwan counties in the west — encompassing Le Sueur, Nicollet and Waseca along the way. Although O’Connor just found out that he was re-elected to the board at the end of April, he has been serving as vice chair now for almost a year. Once his rotation in the role is up later this summer, he will likely take over as chair of the council.
Through his work at the state level, O’Connor has also been able to join the U.S. Grains Council as a delegate from Minnesota. In both roles, he has been a part of diplomatic missions to Mexico and further down to South America.
“A year ago, I was on a trade mission with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to Colombia and Peru,” said O’Connor. “Those two countries are very strong users of corn from the United States, and they’re expanding their livestock industries so they need more. We’re working to create that comfort level of who they’re doing business with.”
On these trips, O’Connor has met with government officials, feed mill owners and operators, and even directly with livestock producers — a group he has a personal familiarity with, raising hogs, in addition to corn and soybeans, at O’Connor Family Farms.
Chad Willis, who has been on the council for over a decade, said O’Connor’s diversity of experience has been an asset to the group — especially with livestock production being one of the primary markets for corn. “Right now as corn growers, we need the ethanol, we need the livestock industry and we need the exports. We need it all, and we just have to balance how we spend those dollars,” he said.
Willis added that O’Connor also brings his familiarity with the ethanol industry to the council, adding that other uses for bio refineries are currently a major topic of discussion. This is also an issue that O’Connor has been especially passionate about since being elected, noting the research that the council is currently undertaking on corn-based plastics. Willis added that this work is being done in partnership with the University of Minnesota, other research institutions and privately-funded projects.
“I am really impressed about this opportunity to have corn-based plastic and alternative fibers,” said O’Connor. “Someday, I’d love to be wearing a shirt that’s a mixture of cotton and corn-based fiber.”
Thinking ahead to the future, O’Connor said he is also excited by the sustainability practices that the council is helping to develop, wanting to leave behind a legacy that the next generation of farmers can carry on.
“Working to build a brighter future, that’s the cornerstone of why I get up in the morning. It’s about the next generation, not my generation,” said O’Connor.