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THE HELPERS: Communities come together to assist those in need during COVID-19 pandemic

Martketplace volunteers

Kylie Mouser (left), the operations manager for Community Pathways of Steele County, trains in Kim Schaufenbuel, the president of the United Way of Steele County, in taking curbside orders for the Marketplace — formerly known as the Food Shelf. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Community Pathways is desperate for volunteers as their normal volunteer pool is mostly retired individuals. The United Way staff are filling in to assure everyone has proper access to food. (Annie Granlund/People’s Press)

There is something to be said about the resilience of Minnesotans as they face adversity, including in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as we stand feet apart, people in southern Minnesota have continued to find way to bring communities close together so that they may come out the out the other end better and stronger.

“There are still people who need the help that they’ve needed all along,” said Kim Schaufenbuel, the president of the United Way of Steele County.

Marketplace volunteers

Tom Worhach, the community impact and fundraising coordinator for the United Way of Steele County, loads boxes of food into a Community Pathways client’s vehicle. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the organization is desperate for volunteers to assist in curbside pickup for the food shelf program. (Annie Granlund/People’s Press)

Specifically, Schaufenbuel is referencing access to food and the large demographic of people in southern Minnesota who rely on special services to keep them fed.

Earlier this week, the staff at Community Pathways of Steele County — formerly known as The Steele County Food Shelf and Clothesline — told their volunteer crews not to come in for their shifts. Most all of their volunteers are retired, and the executive directors, Nancy Ness and Maureen Schlobohm, said that they didn’t want them to be at risk during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Marketplace volunteers

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only staff members and volunteers of the Marketplace in Community Pathways are allowed inside. Kim Schaufenbuel (left) and Kylie Mouser are shown filling grocery bags for a client as they wait outside in their vehicle. (Annie Granlund/People’s Press)

“We realized pretty early on that we couldn’t do this ourselves,” Schlobohm said, explaining that the Marketplace has begun curbside-only pickup for its clients in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. “We really needed help from able-bodied, young healthy people.”

And in Steele County, wherever help is need the United Way can be found.

“Community Pathways is very much in need of volunteers, so the United Way staff are taking turns working there to provide some help to them,” Schaufenbuel said as she prepared for her afternoon shift of taking orders at the curb and bringing out boxes of food. “We’re all just trying to be as agile and responsive as we can right now.”

Little Free Food Shelf

Outreach to help others who may be on the fringe gain appropriate access to food has been a common theme throughout the area. In Kenyon, a woman dropped groceries off to a friend who hadn’t been out of the house in a while, as well as delivering her mail and materials from church. In Faribault, the local senior center is providing high quality takeout meals for a low price for anyone in need.

Popping up all over the region have been boxes filled with food, taking residency in former Little Free Libraries.

Outside of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Northfield, a local Girl Scout troop installed a Little Free Pantry next to an already existing Little Free Library, complete with non-perishable food items such as cereal, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, soup, and other items.

Doyen children

The Doyen children, (from left to right) 8-year-old Harper, 5-year-old Hazel, and 11-year-old Haydon, have removed all the books from their Little Free Library in Le Sueur and relabeled the box the “Little Free Food Shelf.” Neighbors and other members of the community have filled the box with non-perishable food items to help those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Terra Doyen)

One mom in Le Sueur, however, saw information on Little Free Pantries circulating on social media, which led her to a new idea.

“We’ve had our Little Free Library for a few years now, and when I saw this idea circulating on Facebook a few days ago I thought, ‘what a simple, easy way we could help our community during this time,’” said Terra Doyen, a mother of three living in the North Morningside neighborhood. “With the kids being bored and having nothing to do, I told them exactly what my plan was and with great eagerness and excitement they rushed out the door to gather up all the books and make a new sign for [the library] that said ‘Little Free Food Shelf – Take in Need.’”

Doyen said she couldn’t have been more proud as she watching her children — 11-year-old Haydon, 8-year-old Harper, and 5-year-old Hazel — get enthusiastic about an idea that would solely benefit others in need. Growing up, Doyen said her mother always emphasized the importance of helping and giving to those who are in need, and that she was ecstatic to instill the same believes in her own children.

“In one night the food shelf filled up with some great stuff,” Doyen added. “The kids were beyond excited the next morning to go check and see if anyone had donated, and the way they ran inside to tell me how much was in there you would think that it was Christmas morning.”

Social distance, social togetherness

In great times of need, Doyen said it is important that close knit communities like Le Sueur stay together, regardless of the social distancing they must practice. Elated that she and her kids have the opportunity to help others and keep busy during a stressful time, she hopes that others will find similar outlets amongst the chaos.

In Faribault, Becky Ford knows all too well about the importance of keeping children feed and busy, which is why her organization — Faribault Youth Investments — immediately began organizing following the closure of schools earlier this week.

“As a part of the community school program, we’re really focused on making sure that young people have everything that they need to be successful,” said Ford, who is the executive director of Faribault Youth Investments. “With school basically being canceled we realized that kids and families probably were not prepared in Faribault, in particular because they were coming off a week of spring break. Maybe they have things to do, but maybe not.”

Ford instantly began working with teachers within the Faribault School District and contacting the organizations partner agencies to come up with a plan to continue to care for kids and keep them engaged in their learning as the state anticipates having teachers implement distance learning in April.

“We want to keep them occupied and not just spending all day on their devices,” Ford said.

On Thursday, a large group of volunteers and staff with the Faribault School District came together and began assembling 150 "activity kits" with four to five different activities for specific grade levels that the students can do at home. Materials included donated items from the public library’s summer program and virtue bracelet kits from the Virtues Project.

Activity kits

Volunteers in Faribault and staff with the Faribault School District came together Thursday to pack 150 activity kits for area students to take home during school closures — an effort led by Faribault Youth Investments. (Photo courtesy of Becky Ford)

“We want to recognize that some families may not have a ‘craft stash’ or some of these education activities just ready and available for them,” Ford added. “These will all be handed out as an option along with the food program from the Faribault Public Schools starting Monday.”

The activity kits are organized by kindergarten through second grade, third through fifth grade, and sixth through eighth grade.

Ford said that she plans to continue to connect with families even as distance learning takes off, wanting to let them know that the community is still thinking of them and there for them in this time of need.

“Communities can sometimes get disjointed in all their efforts, and this is a way to pull everyone together,” Ford added. “I think we will continue to pull people together. Faribault is awesome.”

Schaufenbuel agreed that if there is one thing that southern Minnesotans are capable of, it is caring for one another regardless of the adversities we may all be facing.

“I know that a lot of people right now are feeling helpless — and by a lot of people I mean the people usually out there doing things in our community,” Schaufenbuel said. “They want to help, but with social distancing and working from home they aren’t sure how. In the face of the helpless feeling, people are looking for something to do and some way to help and be of service.”

“Continue to look for those opportunities,” she continued. “Together we can figure it out soon.”

For more information on how to help, visit unitedwaysteelecounty.org/covid-19 and ricecountyunitedway.org/news/covid-19-response.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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