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Toys for Tots switches gears amidst pandemic

Though nothing about the past year has been what would be considered “normal” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mission of the Steele County Toys for Tots has held strong: every child deserves Christmas.

“This year, it’s going to feel strange,” said Don Overlie, the coordinator of the local Toys for Tots, a branch of the national U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots program with the objective to collect and distribute new and unwrapped toys for needy children at Christmas time. “With COVID-19 and how it spreads, we are just going to have to do things differently.”

The biggest adjustment for Toys for Tots, which has had an operation in Steele County for 38 years, is the distribution will be shifting to a drive-thru only process. In the past, parents were able to walk through the shopping area set up at Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna to select gifts for their children. This year, the gifts will be pre-bagged by volunteers and delivered with no contact to the shopper.

“State guidelines say we just can’t have the number of people that we would need to do it the way we have in the past,” Overlie said of the distribution. “Secondly, most of our volunteers are adults beyond the age of 50, so we’re not going to risk it.”

Overlie said everyone involved in the distribution, from the volunteers to the recipients, will also be required to wear face masks. He added that distribution will be spread across four days this year instead of three to allow for the drive-thru method, according to Overlie, and that the volunteers will bag gifts based on what is on the applications.

“It’s going to be age-appropriate toys, so if there’s a 6-year-old on the application we will find a toy that would be for someone of that age,” Overlie said. “I’m guessing there will be fewer books, much fewer clothing items, and sadly there will be no bicycles this year.”

Because of the amount of time and manpower it takes into assembling the bicycles donated in the past to Toys for Tots, as well as the importance of having the adult selecting the right-sized bicycle for their child, Overlie said there was no way to handle the bicycles this holiday season.

Another change this Toys for Tots season will be the shopping, which Overlie said they are trying to do as little of as possible. Thanks to a surprise donation in January from the Owatonna High School winter fundraiser, Overlie said they had funds they weren’t anticipating heading into the holidays. Using those funds, Overlie has already done some shopping through wholesalers connected with the national organization to ensure a certain amount of toys and gifts will be available for local kids in need.

“I’ve purchased more toys this year than ever before from vendors tied in with our national organization,” Overlie said. Despite that option, though, Overlie said donations from the local community are still a vital part of their operation.

“We would rather have people select toys locally and drop them in our boxes,” Overlie said. “If we are given cash we will spend it, but receiving physical items would be ideal this year.”

While Toys for Tots serves all ages of youth, Overlie said the 8 to 12-year-old range, specifically with girls, seems to be not only the biggest age group they serve, but the hardest to shop for. Over his last 20 years volunteering with the group, he said they seem to always be able to serve teenagers and the younger children easily.

“Any age that people would like to buy for, that’s great,” Overlie said. “But for some reason the 8- to 12-year-olds seems to be where we really struggle, for both boys and girls, but leaning slightly toward the girls.”

On top of all these changes, Overlie said there are two things that will be missed the most during this year’s Toys for Tots campaign. One will be the face and support of the man who brought the organization to the county, Jerry Shore. Shore died in May.

The other thing Overlie says will be missed this year is the intimate human connection with the recipients.

“There will be no physical contact, which means they won’t be able to give us hugs and we won’t be able to give them hugs,” Overlie said. “That will be strange.”

Give to the Max Day takes on special meaning during pandemic
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Minnesota nonprofits are seeing an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty, job losses and food insecurity while traditional in-person fundraising efforts are curbed by the pandemic.

Give to the Max Day is taking on a special meaning this year because of that and Jake Blumberg, executive director of GiveMN, said he hopes Minnesotans will be able to dig deep this year to support their local nonprofits.

“The need in our communities this year is really so much more significant than a typical year or any year any one of us has lived through,” Blumberg said.

Minnesotans can participate in Give to the Max Day all day Thursday by donating on GiveMN.org, although the website is already open for early donations. Donors can search for organizations by name, keyword or ZIP code.

Erica Staab-Absher, executive director of the HOPE Center in Faribault, said they’re excited about the day every year. The center typically receives $2,000-5,000 from 15-45 donors on Give to the Max Day. This year, she said they’re hoping to receive at least $5,000 from 40 donors. The center, which helps residents who have experienced domestic violence and sexual assault, has had an increase in demand for its services this year, she said. Many of their clients have lost their jobs and are food insecure, and don’t want to leave their abusive situation because their significant other is the one who has a job, she said. At the same time, the pandemic has meant that the HOPE Center can’t hold its in-person fundraisers. They did an online fundraiser and recently did a mailer explaining the need for additional funding, she said.

Give to the Max Day is nice because it provides a trusted platform for donations and an easy way for the organization to get the word out, she said.

“And for a day, we can focus on the good,” she said.

Nonprofits who receive donations on Thursday will be eligible to receive additional money throughout the day via “Golden Tickets.” A nonprofit will be chosen every 15 minutes to have $500 added to a donation and a nonprofit will be chosen every hour to have $1,000 added to a donation. One nonprofit will also be chosen to receive $10,000.

This year’s Give to the Max Day theme is “Give Where You Live.” Blumberg called the day the “Great Minnesota Give Together” and said Minnesotans donating to organizations collectively on one day creates a sense of community connection.

While the need in Minnesota is great this year, GiveMN has already had $20 million donated to Minnesota organizations through its website during the first nine months of 2020, which is three times the amount donated during that time last year.

“We can’t stop now,” Blumberg said.

The Kenyon Area Historical Society typically sees a few donations from Give to the Max Day that help fund its programs and events at the Gunderson House, such as the Christmas Cookie Walk.

Historical Society Board member Kevin Anderson said there are so many needs in the local community and it’s especially important to donate this year because the needs are great during the pandemic.

“The local organizations work hard and the members donate a lot of time and it’s nice to see the community support them,” he said.

Donations to Rice County Area United Way make their way into communities in many different ways, but without the donations, they wouldn’t be able to help with a lot of needs, said Executive Director Penny Hillemann.

Many of the organizations United Way partners with have seen an increase in demand for their services, such as food support and financial assistance, during the pandemic while they haven’t been able to fundraise like normal, she said.

While some residents may be feeling the financial burden of the pandemic with furloughs or struggling businesses, she encourages residents who feel financially stable to help on Give to the Max Day.

“There’s satisfaction in supporting the local community and helping your neighbors get through the toughest of times,” she said.

Jennifer Nelson, vice president of external relations at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, based in Owatonna, said its hoping to raise money on Give to the Max Day for their COVID-19 relief efforts and overall efforts in the 20-county region it serves. Residents often overlook the needs in their own communities, but the pandemic has brought those needs to the forefront, she said.

“There’s a lot more need and we are all a lot more aware of the opportunities to invest in our communities,” she said.

SMIF has 11 community foundations participating separately in Give to the Max Day and donations to SMIF will benefit all 30 community foundations in its area. It’s important for people to donate locally because they are the agencies that are there in the communities in both the good and bad years that will support the longevity in the community and the region, she said.

“These are the organizations that do the work in times of crisis,” she said.

Blooming Prairie schools changes schedule due to COVID-19
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The Blooming Prairie School Board has made changes to its calendar and schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board approved Monday a calendar change as a result of the upcoming distance learning week. Regular school days were scheduled on Nov. 23-24, but they’re now planning days for staff with no student instruction.

Currently pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade students are learning in-person and seventh- through 12th-graders are in the hybrid model. This Friday will be the last in-person learning day for Blooming Prairie students prior to Thanksgiving break, set for Nov. 25-27. The distance learning week will begin Nov. 30 and run through Dec. 4 for all Blooming Prairie students.

Steele County superintendents wanted to be proactive in curbing any COVID-19 spread after Thanksgiving with the distance learning period. This will give students and staff at least ten days after Thanksgiving to observe symptoms and get tested.

“We will assess our COVID situation along the way,” Blooming Prairie Superintendent Chris Staloch said.

Gov. Tim Walz announced a new executive order on Nov. 5 which requires school districts to provide teachers with 30 minutes of preparation time per day to provide student instruction in hybrid or distance learning models. This is in addition to the five minutes of planning time per 25 minutes of classroom instruction time which is already established under state statute.

“This change may require some school districts and charter schools to rearrange student and teacher schedules. Some school districts and charter schools may also need to reassign staff,” Walz’s executive order states.

Schools should implement the additional planning time as soon as possible and no later than Nov. 30, according to the order.

After talking with staff, Staloch presented the plan to combine the 30-minute time periods together on Wednesdays, meaning students will be let out of school early so teachers can use the remainder of the day to plan for the following week’s distance learning. Students will be in school from their normal morning time until their release at 12:30 p.m. The new schedule will begin Dec. 2 and run through the second quarter. The plan was approved by the board.

“If (the executive orders) are still in place, we will extend those, if the executive order is not in place or it gets changed then we will adjust accordingly,” Staloch said about the future plans after second quarter.

Blooming Prairie schools have many teachers who are teaching both distance learning and in-person learning at the same time, which can be a challenge, according to Staloch. While he praises teachers for their hard work throughout the pandemic, he also acknowledges that teaching both models at the same time can be draining.

“This will be a nice addition for them to get some extra time to get some of that planning done,” he said.

The school board also approved Monday the 2021-22 academic calendar, which Staloch says is very similar to this year’s calendar.