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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 


As perhaps the fastest athlete in his grade, Ethan Walter stole 17 bases last season, including this attempt against Austin last spring. He led the team in several major statistical categories and was one of two Huskies that made the all-conference team in 2019. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

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Owatonna grad says hometown instilled passion for community service

Sierra Cumberland wears a lot of hats, but if you ask her what her title is she has no problem talking about the one she feels fits best.

“Broadly speaking, I’m an advocate,” said the 2012 Owatonna High School grad. “My goal is to be involved in my community in a hands-on way and to help improve the safety, efficiency and economic success of my community.”

Today, Cumberland is a case manager for The International Institute of Minnesota, a St. Paul nonprofit that aids new Americans in achieving full membership in American Life. Cumberland also serves as the chair of the St. Paul Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission. From 9 to 5, Cumberland spends her days connecting foreign-born survivors of human trafficking with the proper resources to work through the criminal justice and legal system, gain independence and become more self-sufficient. As chair of the review commission, Cumberland helps review complaints filed against members of the St. Paul Police Department and make disciplinary recommendations.

“It’s more important than ever that we strive to make connections between the community and the systems that govern and serve us,” Cumberland said. “I am particularly passionate about this work because if people in the community don’t feel safe to report crimes because they feel they can’t trust the systems in place then we cannot accurately respond to them, which means we are all less effective.”

Though Cumberland is now invested in her new community, she said it was her Owatonna roots that instilled the importance of being involved in the community. It was in her second-grade classroom at McKinley Elementary School that Cumberland remembers meeting a new classmate who was brand new to Minnesota and spoke very little English.

“His family had resettled to Owatonna from a refugee camp,” Cumberland said. “But as a kid, you just didn’t think about the politics or the social separations, you just play because you’re kids.”

Cumberland said that as she got older, she started to notice that classmates who were the children of refugees or immigrants often didn’t have the support they needed in the classroom. Frequently that meant they fell behind the rest of her class. During her last year of college is when she really began to understand her childhood classmates and where they came from.

“When I got to meet refugees as an adult and sit down with them I was finally able to understand a little better what they had survived,” Cumberland said. “Not until then did I really understand that those kids in my classroom in second grade weren’t coming to Owatonna because they wanted to move, they were fleeing violence and war zones, and their families were just seeking an opportunity for a better life and an education.”

Over the years, Cumberland said her passion for refugee rights continued to grow. Cumberland credits her high school Spanish teachers with helping her find her voice and taught her how to become more effective in the community as opposed to getting “riled up” over certain things. In college she was able to spend a semester in an impoverished area of the Dominican Republic, which Cumberland said shined a spotlight on how fortunate she was to come from Owatonna.

“It was a big wake-up moment for me, having grown up in a very loved and respected family and always being taken care of,” Cumberland said. “Going to a place that is the home to so much corruption and violence shows me the things that we take for granted that simply don’t exist in places like that.

“It really ignited a spark in me to take advantage of all the things I’ve been given from my upbringing to my education and utilize the skills I have to give a hand up to other members of our community,” she continued. “When we work together a lot more can get done.”

Bring 'Owatonna' to the state

Cumberland said that her intense work ethic was ingrained in her by her family and especially her father, Jade Cumberland, third-generation owner of Owatonna's Cumberland's Northwest Trapper Supply.

“I got to see how he worked hard every day of his life, but also how he treated every single person with respect,” Cumberland said of her father. “At the heart of it that’s what it means to be a Minnesotan — that dedication to doing right, being involved and working hard.”

What’s next for Cumberland’s is yet to be seen as the young woman continues to be heavily involved in her community in a variety of ways and explores her plethora of interests. On top of her busy career and work on the review commission, Cumberland is an election judge for Ramsey County and volunteers to prepare taxes for the Minnesota Department of Revenue tax prep program.

“Learning all these systems, how they work, and how the public interacts with them will hopefully enable me to make things more efficient, I’m just unsure of exactly what form that is going to take,” she said. “I just want to stay true to my values and principles and see what I can fine.”

Wherever life takes her, however, Cumberland continues to remember where she came from that lit the initial fire inside of her. Above everything else, Cumberland said she cannot express her thanks enough to the people who have continued to support and encourage her throughout the years — including those who had to “put her in her place” every now and then, which she recognizes now opportunities for growth.

“Owatonna is a place where I feel everyone is involved in the community, a city where everyone helps each other,” Cumberland said. “Minnesota is a great place and I love living here, but Minnesota doesn’t treat all Minnesotans the same. I want to bring more ‘Owatonna’ into the state.”

130 Minn. inmates test positive for COVID-19, none so far at Faribault prison

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen, public health officials are raising particular concern about the virus’s potential to spread in correctional facilities.

Already, thousands of prison and jail inmates across the country have tested positive for the virus. A report released last month by the American Civil Liberties Union found that if significant steps are not taken to reduce the virus’s spread in prisons, an additional 100,000 Americans could die.

In Minnesota, two state correctional facilities have seen major outbreaks of the virus. As of Thursday, 36 staff and 35 inmates had tested positive for the virus at MCF-Moose Lake, while 55 inmates and four staff tested positive at MCF-Willow River. In all, 455 inmates in Minnesota’s prisons have been tested as of Thursday, 92 were positive, 38 were presumed positive. Sixteen are pending results.

At MCF-Faribault, the largest of 11 state-run correctional facilities throughout Minnesota, no cases have been reported. Fourteen inmates have been tested, with 13 of those confirmed negative and one still awaiting results. That doesn’t mean the facility is sitting on its laurels. Nicholas Kimball, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said that officials from MCF-Faribault are in daily and sometimes hourly contact with the state and other facilities.

Working with Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and other top officials from the state DOC, as well as local health officials, each facility has come up with its own set of guidelines to limit spread of the virus.

Kimball said that the process has proven quite complex and challenging for the Department of Corrections, because each facility varies greatly. Some of the state’s correctional facilities are 100 years old, while others were construction a couple of decades ago.

“It’s challenging, because these facilities weren’t built with pandemic management in mind,” Kimball said. “We’ve had to change procedures and schedules to reduce the opportunities for the virus to spread.”

Within MCF-Faribault and other facilities throughout the state, a “Stay in Unit” plan has been implemented. Like Gov. Tim Walz’s order, the “Stay in Unit” plan is designed to limit the spread of the virus should an inmate contract it, giving authorities time to respond.

Schnell has pushed hard for additional recreational and educational opportunities for prisoners. Among the state’s correctional facilities, Faribault has traditionally led the way, but that push has been deeply affected by the pandemic. Inmates have continued to work in essential occupations such as food service, laundry and cleaning, though they’ve been asked to adhere to strict social distancing policies. Classes have also continued, but only after the development of distance learning plans.

Inmates are still allowed to meet with their tutors individually or in small groups, so long as social distancing protocol is followed. Treatment groups are continuing similarly, with large groups eschewed in favor of small groups or electronic communication.

To help inmates cope with stress, outdoor recreational activities have actually increased. Inmates are expected to follow strict distancing procedures while outdoors, and each unit is kept separate in accordance with the Stay in Unit policy.

Recently, staff and inmates alike have begun wearing cloth masks, per the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staff have their temperature taken every day before entering the facility, to limit the risk of spreading the disease.

Additional hand washing stations have been installed to encourage proper sanitation, and like staff at health care facilities, correctional facility staff are encouraged to take precautions at home to limit the risk of spreading the virus to their families.

However, access to N95 masks, which provide the strongest and most reliable protection from the virus, is limited to use by medical staff or corrections officers interacting with a known symptomatic patient.

Kimball said that initially, amid a shortage of testing, the state limited tests to prisoners who had symptoms unique to COVID, rather than the flu or other viruses. Now, testing has expanded to cover even asymptomatic people.

As the state continues to expand its testing capacity and more timely tests are developed, Kimball said that it’s possible that facilities like MCF-Faribault could adjust their policies. He said the DOC is paying close attention to the guidance of local and state health authorities to determine whether changes are needed.

No prom? No problem. Senior gift giveaway still in the works

While Owatonna High School seniors won’t be able to attend prom as planned this weekend, the after-prom event committee is putting together a virtual senior send-off next Friday evening to try and take the place of their annual late-night celebration.

Any other year, the parent group would be setting up door prizes, food and games, plus scheduling a hypnotist at the middle school gym. Co-chair Sara Borgerding estimated that roughly 400 students annually venture over after the dance to hang out from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. This year, however, the group is unable to safely plan a get-together that would still allow for the necessary social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, with donations already in to help fund this year’s door prizes, the committee has decided it can continue to host that part of the event — turning it into a senior send-off via live online video, where volunteers will draw names and give away the prizes they have collected.

“We wanted to make sure that we were doing something for the kids,” said Borgerding. “We all have juniors and seniors that are missing out on this event, and it’s close to our hearts that way … we know the impact that it has.”

Co-chair Becky Munns added that the goal of after-prom is to give dance attendees a safe, fun environment to be in post-dance, but also to provide an alternative event to students who choose not to attend prom.

“Not knowing when [the need for social distancing] will end, and if there will be an opportunity to have any sort of event even in the summer, we decided that this would be the best way to support those students,” she said. “The prize drawing will only be for seniors, but we already are in discussion for how we make the juniors feel special next year when it’s their senior year. They haven’t been forgotten in all of this.”

In addition to doing something for students, Borgerding said the committee wanted to move forward with the virtual drawing as a way to use the money they had already received for the event. Typically, door prizes are funded through financial donations from local businesses and a number of high school parents.

“We’ve obviously lost some donations, because we weren’t able to do some of the fundraising we typically do,” she added. “But all the businesses in Owatonna have been really supportive over the years of after-prom, and we wanted to make sure that we were utilizing those donations this year.”

Borgerding said the goal is to be able to give away a gift to every senior who registers. In order to have a door prize for everyone, both she and Munns added that next Friday’s event is open to seniors only, as opposed to juniors and seniors during the typical after prom event. The drawings will take place on the committee’s Instagram account, and should run for roughly 45 minutes starting at 5 p.m.

Volunteers will be based out of Trinity Lutheran Church, with prizes available for pick-up as soon as the drawing starts and the first name is called. With many seniors now essential workers during the pandemic, Munns added that families can also come and claim their student’s gift. While the committee hopes people will tune into the live event, they will also send text messages or emails to students as their names are called.

In the past, Borgerding said the committee has focused on gift cards to local businesses, as well as items for dormitories or apartments as door prizes — thinking ahead to what students might need in their first year after high school.

“Everybody will stay in the car, they’ll show us their school ID, we’ll go back in and find their door prize and give it to them as they drive through,” she added, of what the pick-up will look like. Munns added that they’re hoping to get all prizes picked up by roughly 8 p.m. the evening of the event — either by students themselves or by their family members.

Students received an email inviting them to register for the event, and are asked to do so by 11:59 p.m. on May 13. Drawings will start on the @owatonna_afterprom Instagram page at 5 p.m. Friday, May 15.

Former Owatonna Hospital security officer among new class of troopers

The highways of Minnesota got a little bit safer this spring.

The 61st Training Academy concluded with a ceremony held on April 11 at Camp Ripley, where 22 cadets graduated to join the ranks of Minnesota state troopers. In accordance with state social distancing standards, the event was livestreamed for families and friends of the cadets.

Among the 22 cadets who participated in the ceremony was Brennon Brase of Owatonna. Before joining the academy, Brase had been a security officer at the Owatonna Hospital for two years.

“While working at the hospital, I witnessed a lot of mental illness, and drug and alcohol influences with the patients and I saw the impact it had on their families,” Brase said. “I wanted to do more to help them.” It was this desire to help the community that inspired him to join the academy and aspire to become a state trooper.

Brase and his fellow graduates are part of a unique class that, along with their training, had to adapt to the new challenges brought on by the current COVID-19 Pandemic. The regular 16-week course had been condensed to 14, with Brase and the other cadets staying at Ripley seven days a week in order to complete the required training. They also have become accustomed to regular briefings and updates from the CDC so that they may adjust their tactics to CDC guidelines, he said.

The training consisted of numerous activities including motor vehicle crash investigation, traffic law, emergency vehicle operations, firearms, defensive tactics and communication and scenario-based training.

“We’ve graduated all sorts of troopers since 1929.” Minnesota State Patrol Chief Matt Langer said during their ceremony. “We’ve graduated the very first class, we’ve graduated World War II-era troopers, we’ve graduated Vietnam-era troopers, we’ve graduated 9/11-era troopers, and now we graduate a COVID-19 era of troopers. You have a story that no one else has in our history.”

Pictured from left: Hannah Sullivan, Justine Garcia and Makkia McCuster show off their new diplomas following the FHS 2019 graduation commencement. (Misty Schwab/Faribault Daily News)