Live United: Getting ready for the United Way’s busiest time of the year

Published 8:45 pm Friday, September 29, 2023

Live United by Erin Haag

On Monday, I walked into the door after being out of the office for a whole week due to illness. I had my cup of cold caffeine in my hand. I chatted with Cindy and Janelle as they waited for drivers to pick up the meals for delivery and then somehow dropped my whole cup, splashing that soda everywhere. My shirt was appropriate for that day, “I run a tight shipwreck.” The day got better though because it was Nikolle’s birthday celebration, and there was cake.

Erin Haag

On Tuesday we had more food delivered than we could fit in our freezers. It’s not always simple, because we get general descriptions, and we don’t know what the packaging looks like. Nikolle and I decided that food banks should operate like Ikea, where they list out every single measurement of the food and the package it comes in. We’re seeing a big shift in what’s available for frozen foods — an increase in frozen produce in preparation for the winter months. After playing Tetris, we worked to share the bounty with other area food shelves and hot meal programs. No food was wasted in playing Tetris.

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On Wednesday, one of our regular volunteers pulled up as I was standing in the parking lot. I’d been out there for about half an hour, looking for my keys. I have one of those cars that just need the keys in the car, and I drove to work so they were there somewhere. He shook his head at me and helped me look. I told him that my son had the keys yesterday, as he had gone out to the car ahead of me. Well, let me tell you, it took him less than five minutes to find the keys — in the snack box. Honestly, knowing my son, that should have been the very first place I looked.

On Thursday, we served a record 86 households. We typically hand out numbers, and those were gone within the first 45 minutes. The last shopper was out of there nearly an hour after we closed because we and our volunteers didn’t want to turn away people. We don’t always have the ability to do that — but that day we did. When you have a family that comes every couple of weeks, walking across town with their backpack and a duffle bag to carry groceries in for their family — the team did everything they could do to make it work.

Thursday night, as I drove home I realized it’s a full moon. Ah, makes perfect sense. I’m a little worried about what’s going to happen next month, when we have a Friday the 13th in October. Maybe I’ll buy ourselves a cake for the office for morale.

Last week was challenging for Nikolle as well, covering for me being out of the office all week, and Rosemary being out of the office as well. It was unavoidable, and she stepped up, and awesome volunteers stepped up as well to help her out. Our intern, Merle, is hauling boxes and putting together shelves and learning the ropes of running the pantry.

As much as possible, I’m in my office, crunching those numbers, working on the campaign, writing grants and in general trying to make operations go a little smoother on the backend. Rosemary’s handling phone calls and running the data for reports and learning our donor database system, in between helping with intake and registration for the pantry. She’s proving to be a whiz at the reporting. She told me, “This was fun, figuring out what numbers I needed.”

We’re in survival mode, which is not where I wanted to be as we head into our busiest season. Behind the scenes, I’m working as quickly as I can to identify ways we can handle this expanded capacity without burning ourselves out. Sometimes it’s the minutiae of trying to get Nikolle’s voicemail fixed or call the IT company about a static IP address so we can print. (No I don’t know what that really means either). This stuff really bogs us down, but we have an overall need to work on some bigger picture solutions. We have strategies, we have some good ideas that board members have talked through with me, as well as other key partners, but it takes time to implement those.

It’s my hope in the next week that I’ll have finalized the details for our other programs. Winter Gear Drive boxes are going out next week, and we’ll be working on the applications for the Jingle Holiday Giving Program for our human service providers. In November we hope to host an open house, an invitation to our community to come and learn more about programs, tour the pantry, participate in a silent auction, sign up to volunteer and bring the 2023 pledge cards in. You’ll be able to see exactly where the community donations go, and the needs that are yet to be filled. Volunteers are still needed for both the pantry and our other programming coming up. Rosemary and I are planning a weekend work day, where we empty out our “program room” and we try to install shelving and battle down the drywall dust. In two to three weeks, we’ll need volunteers to come and organize quilts, hang up coats and help us get ready for Community Distribution Days.

This is not a doom and gloom article about how hard we’ve got it. This is a snapshot of the little things that can pile up on a week, but it’s good work, it’s meaningful work. A donor stopped by to get some information from me, took a tour, brought his brother-in-law to sign up for services a few hours later and plans to volunteer. That’s meaningful. A little girl visited with her Papa who volunteers and discovered how fun it is to make echo noises in the warehouse. She and I stood out there hooting like owls for a good five minutes. There’s good coffee and ice cold sodas and snacks. There’s graphic T-shirts from direct support professionals that work alongside their community member that is volunteering. Nikolle wants one similar, it says, “Direct Support Professional only because Full-time Multitasking Ninja is not an actual job title.” It’s hard work, meaningful work, fun work and we drive home under full moons talking to each other to process and decompress from the day, knowing that we did our best and it’s time to rest.

We invite you to come and join us in the madness, give us a call at 507-373-8670 and press 4 to reach my voicemail since I’m still arguing with the phone company about Nikolle’s voicemail. It’s chaos, but it truly is a fun chaos. When it gets to be a little too much, we have a nice breakroom with snacks and sometimes there’s cake.

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