In my April column, I compared 2020 to trying to play basketball during an earthquake. And of course the COVID-19 upheavals continued, and then we were hit by a huge seismic wave in late May when the death of George Floyd sparked grief and rage in Minnesota and around the world.

There’s no doubt that 2020 is a pivotal year for individuals, families, businesses and nonprofit organizations alike. With so many people laid off from their jobs, business owners unsure if they can stay open long-term or concluding that they can’t, people struggling to put food on the table, families dealing with disruption, isolation, health concerns and high levels of stress, the needs are greater than ever.

In April and June RCAUW awarded a total of $11,700 in COVID-19 Agency Relief microgrants to nonprofit agencies that have seen a surge in demand due to the pandemic and its economic impact. These experienced local agencies have worked diligently and creatively to deliver services to more people while keeping clients, staff and volunteers as safe as possible. Thanks to individuals and organizations donating specifically for this purpose, the United Way was able to get these additional funds out to help meet rising community needs.

Rice County Area United Way also recently announced its annual grant awards totaling $240,000 to 27 nonprofit and school-sponsored programs that play an essential role in the United Way’s commitment to fighting for the health, education and financial stability of every person in our community. The grants will promote youth success, foster health in individuals and communities, help people acquire skills and habits that lead to long-term financial stability, and assist people experiencing hardship and crisis. $156,800 was awarded in the area of financial stability/basic needs, $61,550 in education and $48,800 in health. Priority was given to programs that serve the greatest need and help the greatest number of community members.

Twelve of these programs provide their services county-wide or in multiple communities in the Rice County area. Six of them primarily serve the Faribault area, one serves the Montgomery-Lonsdale-LeCenter area, and nine primarily serve the Northfield area. You can learn more about the agencies and programs receiving United Way support at ricecountyunitedway.org/partner-agencies.

Rice County Area United Way also expects to invest approximately $25,000 in 2020-2021 promoting early childhood pre-literacy skills (and all the other benefits that come from families reading together) as the local sponsor of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, sending free, age-appropriate books each month to more than 900 Rice County area children from infancy to age five. At a time when child care, pre-schools and public library programs are disrupted, Imagination Library will keep the books coming and keep young children excited about books and reading.

In addition to its greater risks for older adults and people with underlying health conditions, COVID-19 has been shown to have a disparate impact on communities of color and indigenous communities. The state of Minnesota reports that as a result of systemic disparities, communities of color and indigenous communities are at higher risk of multiple health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, severe asthma and obesity. This puts them at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19:

• Indigenous Minnesotans have the highest proportion of positive cases that have been hospitalized or in the ICU.

• Black and Latin Minnesotans are testing positive, hospitalized and being put in Intensive Care Units at higher rates compared to the overall population.

• Communities of color have increased exposure to the virus because of work in jobs that are now considered essential such as child care providers, grocers and meat packers. These jobs are often underpaid, lack health benefits and have fewer worksite protections.” (Source: mn.gov/covid19/data/data-by-race-ethnicity).

Living in poverty, having limited access to health care and experiencing the repeated stresses caused by the inequities in our society all contribute to health conditions that put these populations more at risk for severe cases of COVID-19.

The death of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men and women have also brought the structural inequities of our society into bold view for many people. Racism and persistent inequities undermine the human rights, opportunities and dignity that Americans hold dear.

Rice County Area United Way has always envisioned and worked to support a community where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and achieve their full potential, regardless of their income, race or address.

We invite everyone to work towards these goals. We are stronger together.

Some people who normally support the United Way will not be in a position to do so this year. If you are fortunate enough to be financially stable, please consider a generous donation to Rice County Area United Way. We’ll soon be offering a new option to round up your purchases for the United Way. Please watch ricecountyunitedway.org for more information, or to donate now. Every gift makes a difference.

Penny Hillemann is executive director of Rice County Area United Way.

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