Progress 2011: Whirlwind Warriors

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, March 2, 2011

BLUE EARTH — Just hours after multiple tornadoes touched down in Freeborn County on June 17, 2010, AgStar Financial Services employees sprung into action.

From left in the back row are Larry Irvine, Jerry Hickman and Marty Little. Front row from left are Deb Steinfeldt and Jeanne Huggins. These were five of dozens of AgStar employees who volunteered after the June 17 tornadoes. -- Photo by Sarah Stultz/Graphic by Stacey Bahr

Deb Steinfeldt, AgStar financial services officer, said staff received calls right away that evening from loan officers who had heard that some of the company’s clients had been hit.

They wanted to help.

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AgStar, a financial cooperative that operates in Minnesota and Wisconsin with a location in Blue Earth, serves many clients in rural Freeborn County.

“They’re clients, but they’re friends, too,” said Larry Irvine, team leader at the Blue Earth office. “We’ve worked with some of these people for at least 30 years.”

Little did they know at that time that they had at least 70 clients who were affected to varying degrees. There were homes flattened, buildings destroyed and fields that were ravaged.

With corn a little over a foot tall, they also recognized it was important to pick up any and all debris from the fields as soon as possible, or it might be too late to replant, said financial services officer Jerry Hickman.

Employees went to work helping anyone and everyone they could — client or not.

On Friday, June 18, the staff ordered 40 to 50 pizzas and drove around, delivering food to people in need and the volunteers who were helping them.

Steinfeldt said the company called everyone who worked at the Blue Earth office and asked them to help. Nearly everyone who was not on vacation or on leave participated.

The Blue Earth office even closed Monday, June 21, to give employees the chance to help.

Then it mushroomed to the rest of the company.

“People came in droves,” Hickman said.

AgStar employees from all over the state and even in Wisconsin drove to Freeborn County to volunteer picking up debris or with other duties that needed to be completed.

Some days there were between 70 and 100 employees who volunteered. This continued for a few weeks.

The crews would meet at an Alden gas station off of Interstate 90 each morning before venturing out.

Steinfeldt coordinated volunteer efforts with local law enforcement and Sentencing to Service workers.

“It was a very rewarding experience,” Irvine said. “When you see folks hurting, it’s natural to want to help them.”

“The hours were hard and the work was hard when you look at what they lost and what we still have,” Steinfeldt added.

She said the hardest thing was determining who to help and when because many of the people who were affected were overwhelmed with how to begin the cleanup.

AgStar employees helped with everything from providing meals and beverages, to picking up debris and running skidloaders.

“It was so eye-opening — the devastation,” said Jeanne Huggins, crop insurance specialist.

Huggins said she felt good to be a part of the AgStar team to help people in need.

In addition to volunteer work, AgStar also initiated a grant program through its corporate giving program, AgStar Fund for Rural America, and teamed up with the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and other organizations with the goal of providing immediate relief to farmers affected by the tornadoes.

Steinfeldt said more than $100,000 in increments of $1,000 each was given out to local farmers and rural businesses.

“A lot of comments we got from people were that it came at the right time in the right place,” she said.

AgStar also created a second grant program to help homeowners whose property was damaged or destroyed. Grants in the amount of $500 were awarded to eligible clients.

In all they contributed $37,000, not to mention the water, meals, gloves, hats and volunteer T-shirts.

The AgStar employees said the gratitude and thanks they received from assisting in the aftermath of the tornadoes is something they will never forget.

“Clients have repeatedly thanked us,” Irvine said. “That’s the best reward you can get.”

Hero: Larry Irvine
Secret identity: team leader
Base of operations: AgStar, Blue Earth office
Superpowers: has a passion for doing what’s right
Kryptonite: has a soft heart for his grandchildren
Affiliations: wife, Janice, four children, four grandchildren
Origin: worked for AgStar for 32 years

Hero: Marty Little
Secret identity: financial services officer
Base of operations: AgStar, Blue Earth office
Superpowers: putting clients first
Kryptonite: has a passion for raising high-quality cattle
Affiliations: wife, Arlene, two children
Origin: Worked for AgStar for 25 years

Hero: Jeanne Huggins
Secret identity: crop insurance specialist
Base of operations: AgStar, Blue Earth office
Superpowers: a passion for her clients
Kryptonite: chocolate
Affiliations: husband, Tony, four children
Origin: Worked in crop insurance with AgStar for 11 years

Hero: Jerry Hickman
Secret identity: financial services officer
Base of operations: AgStar, Blue Earth office
Superpowers: feels good to help other people
Kryptonite: his love for his family
Affiliations: wife, Jan, four children, three grandchildren
Origin: worked for AgStar for 33 years

Hero: Deb Steinfeldt
Secret identity: financial services officer
Base of operations: AgStar, Blue Earth office
Superpowers: organizational and people-person skills
Kryptonite: sometimes is too passionate in her job, gives too much of herself, loves chocolate
Affiliations: husband, Monte, two children
Origin: worked for AgStar for 15 years