Live United: Every story makes a big difference in the community

Published 8:45 pm Friday, November 3, 2023

Live United by Erin Haag

The walnuts are gone from my driveway. I’ve been watching those squirrels and even a chipmunk or two carry them away. That took care of many of them. I came home one day to find my husband blowing the rest of the walnuts off the driveway. He may not have been acting upon the article I wrote about how much I hate the noise I make when I drive over them. I promise I wasn’t writing a honey do list via my article, but I appreciated it all the same!

Erin Haag

Last weekend, Rosemary and I spent Friday evening with volunteers and an adorable puppy setting up for the Winter Gear Drive. Our kids helped hold racks in place as they were put together, we laid out the route. It’s a new building, so new routines to figure out. Saturday came in cold, and we had a good little rush in the beginning. After that, it was quiet. It always seems like that’s the way, it’s busy at the start and then it gets quiet, giving us time to rearrange, restock and assess. The bags had been rolling in all week, volunteers checking the bags at the Albert Lea Family Y, Whimzy toys, City Arena, Mayo Clinic, Walmart, Hy-vee — just to name a few. The tall white boxes with “United Way Winter Gear Drive” is becoming more and more well known, and that helps. People know to look for them, and they call to find out where the closest one to their daily route is.

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One of our volunteers was doing the intake for the Winter Gear Drive for the first time. She joined us this summer, and I love having her around. She is such a proud ambassador, bringing in new volunteers and even just bringing friends by to give a tour of the space. I adore the fact that she feels welcomed enough and has enough ownership in our programs that she just stops by to give tours — because that’s what it is. It’s our space, not mine, not Nikolle’s, but it belongs to all of us. As I circled around to check on everyone, I saw her sitting with her first intake, a mother and daughter. Our volunteer was chatting with the mom while reaching across the desk to hold the daughter’s hands, warming them up. If I had a picture of empathy, that’s what it would be.

We’ve been able to fill needs for several families through our school social workers already. But every year there seems to be a specific size range that we’re missing. Last year it was size 7/8. I was scrounging for those — even in the stores when I had funding to buy it, it was difficult to find the sizes. This year we’re seeing that we need size 3-5 in both boys and girls. Especially the 5. I hate telling school social workers that I don’t have a coat or funding yet for a 5-year-old to have a coat. Currently I need at least four coats in size 5. We’re looking for both boys and girls or gender neutral coats in that color.

We also have a very specific request from a school social worker. There is a child that needs special shoes to support the braces he wears on his feet. His current shoes are affecting his balance, making it more difficult to overcome his challenges. There’s a whole team of support staff working to measure his feet, observe how he walks, noting the soles of his current shoes are worn down to the point of holes. One staff member spent the time to research shoes, watching instructional videos and figuring out exactly what he needs. Now, this team is going to bat to find the resources to help get this boy his shoes. We’re hoping to find a donor for these shoes. Because of his unique sizing and needing different size shoes, I’ll be ordering directly from the manufacturer. I am estimating the cost to be between $120-$140. Oh — and that research that the team did? That includes finding the coupon codes to get the sale price.

It’s the kind of story that makes me want to whip out my own personal checkbook. Those are the moments when I take a deep breath and remind myself that I can’t save the world. It’s my job to tell the story, my job to get the details, to find that darn coupon code and make the dollars stretch further. It’s my job to build the relationship with our school social workers and other human service providers so they trust me to help them find a solution.

Each and every day, we have stories that come through our door. Sometimes we hear the stories second hand, from the caseworkers or social workers. I have stories of families that I’m deeply familiar with, and I have no idea what their names are, or any identifying information. But their caseworker can call me and say, “Hey you know that family I was working with? This happened…” Sometimes we see the stories ourselves. Sometimes we’re a part of the story ourselves. Sometimes the story is a volunteer watching out the window to make sure the bus comes to pick up the family waiting with their groceries. Because if that bus didn’t come soon, he was going to go give them a ride. Or another volunteer holding the hands of a young girl to warm them. Sometimes the story is a shopper who turns into a volunteer, walking home to put groceries away and walking back to help us, even on the cold and rainy days.

We’re feeding people. We’re clothing people. We’re connecting them to resources and we’re working to build a system that empowers our community. We’re a small but mighty team, growing faster than we can keep up, but we’re not letting that stop us. Every story makes a difference. Every dollar donated is put to good use. If you’d like to be a part of the story, of helping us live united in purpose, give us a call at 507-373-8670. Donations to help aid our work can be mailed to PO Box 686, Albert Lea, MN 56007. Donors are always welcome to aid in a specific program or purpose. I also hope you’ll join us Nov. 18, at our open house from 3 to 7 p.m. to come and see in person why our community should “Fall in Love” with United Way.

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