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Guest Column: Reach out a hand and stand together as a community

Live United, by Erin Haag

When my son was born, we spent three months of not knowing what his disease was. He was born a healthy 8 pounds, 14 ounces but didn’t gain weight. It was a period of knowing there was an issue, but not certain what it was. Twice weekly doctor visits and late nights researching during a time when we should be bonding. Through some mutual connections, a local mom found out about us. Heidi didn’t know me. She didn’t know my husband. But she reached out and connected with me. Her little boy was seven months older than mine. She made us tacos and talked to me during our hospital stay. I sent her pictures of my little one looking at the fish aquarium at the hospital. We would talk back and forth while I walked the loop at the hospital, trying desperately to stay awake with a little baby. Round and round that floor we’d go, making sure not to set off the alarms by going outside the boundary.

Erin Haag

I actually don’t remember meeting Heidi in person. By the time we did, we knew each other well. Maybe that’s why. She babysat for my daughter when I needed to take my baby to the doctor for followup visits. We didn’t socialize much being busy moms with littles, but we talked. We’d not talk for a few months, and then check in again.

About a year after we started talking, her son was diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, our roles were reversed. I never was there for her as much as I wanted to be, but we talked. That hospital loop I was so intimately familiar with? She became familiar with, too. I’d get a picture, and I’d recognize the view out the window and know which hospital room she was in. Somehow, knowing that someone else you knew had been there, or at least in a similar way helped her. When the effects of treatment were like the effects of my son’s disease, we discussed ways to provide care.

Sweet Drew passed away at the age of 2 years old, a year after his diagnosis. His mama’s sweet spirit drew her to keep on connecting with people. She found a new passion: connecting with other families going through cancer. Just a few short months later, the first Warrior Wagon was gifted to a family. Three years later, Warrior Wagons is providing wagons to new families with a cancer diagnosis, filled with comforting and practical items in Chicago, Minneapolis and Rochester hospitals.

What a changemaker. Often when I think about what United Way is, it’s the heart of that grassroots effort of creating programs. We need more people like Heidi who see a need and step up to make something happen. Through making meals, volunteering their time or turning personal heartache into connecting with other families, these community members are the ones who make our world a better place to live.

This year, we need to be connected more than ever. It may not be in person, but if a stranger can connect with me through the telephone and have such a profound impact — imagine what we could do on a community wide basis? With these connections in mind — our theme of the year is United Together & Freeborn Together. Our United Together series will look at the collective impact of United Ways across the state. Freeborn Together will focus more on local results right here. On Sept. 28, the United Way of Freeborn County will officially kick off. We invite the community to join us in thanking our frontline workers. Look to our new website launching next week, check our social media pages and, of course, I’ll keep you posted here for ways to participate.

UWFC isn’t involved with Warrior Wagons, that’s a personal cause of mine. I hope that hearing the power of connections though, the simple conversations that can foster the togetherness to build the foundation, inspires you. I think about Drew every day, and I think about his mama, reaching out to a stranger on the slim connection of a mutual friend. In our small towns, we’ve all got something in common. Reach out a hand and stand together—Freeborn Together.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.