Live United: Stories come full circle with efforts of the United Way

Published 8:45 pm Thursday, November 9, 2023

Live United by Erin Haag

Monday morning, a volunteer driver for the Meals to Go opened up the paper and read my article. She read about the shoes needed for a little boy, and decided to take action. Later that morning, I was sitting in my office, in a phone meeting with a board member. I turned away to look out the window as I talked. When I turned back around, on top of my keyboard was an envelope. Inside was a check with a post-it note. That’s all it takes to bring a lot of joy to a Monday morning. A post-it note, a jot in the memo line and your donations go exactly where you want them to go. The order has been placed, and we’re waiting for UPS to bring that beautiful little box to our door.

Erin Haag

On Tuesday, our Winter Gear Drive was full. There were beautiful handmade quilts, and coat racks were completely full. We had at least two to three of each size and a good selection of “bonus” items, like sweatshirts, fleece vests, etc. Currently, those racks are looking pretty bare. I don’t have solid numbers yet, but for perspective, we typically serve 10 to 15 families each distribution date. I’m thinking we served about 75 families that night — more than we’ve ever had before,

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The need is great. A young pregnant mother came in on that cool evening, shivering in her white T-shirt. A little boy wore socks with his too-small sandals. Nikolle and I went home and cleaned our closets, hoping to find things our children had outgrown that we’d overlooked before. Others brought in winter coats that didn’t fit their children anymore, hoping to find the next size up. Community members brought in coats at the same time, and they were going out the door as fast as they were coming in.

One of our volunteers told Nikolle a story; she visualized it so clearly that she shared it with me. For us, it’s a classic example of the “full circle” type of stories that keep us going. O. is a shopper who has been volunteering for us. One day he came in to shop, got a number and then decided to spend his time waiting for his turn by carrying out groceries. He’s been fully embraced by the volunteer crew, and he volunteers often. He’s enthusiastic about his self-appointed job. Nikolle laughs when she says she and another volunteer will be coming out the door with groceries, and he’ll be down at the end of the parking lot with our wagon we use. He rushes back to help them, running so fast that the little blue wagon goes airborne. He’s determined to get the load of groceries before Nikolle hits the bottom of the stairs. That’s his commitment to us, his way of giving back.

We also have our senior sisters who come to shop. They have no transportation, so they shop light. They live nearby, and they walk everywhere. It was crowded in the pantry that day. Our sisters sat and chatted alongside a Spanish-speaking family. A grandpa discussed different types of cooking squash with a young teenage girl. A young man sat against the wall with his skateboard, making sure I knew he would not ride his skateboard and damage anything; he was just carrying it.

That day, O. decided to step out for a bit. He encouraged the sisters to take a little more food and told them he’d walk them home and help carry the groceries. They saw the young man headed in the same direction as they walked home. He was skateboarding down the sidewalk, balancing his box of groceries on top of his head. The two groups saw each other and were waving and yelling hello to each other. O. stood and told Nikolle how happy he was to see the other man and how they greeted each other.

Three generations. Three different lifestyles and cultures. Many of us wouldn’t have thought anything of a greeting like that, but it obviously brought O. so much joy. That simple acknowledgment of a friendly smile and waving hello across the street. I can imagine so clearly the sisters walking down the street, O. matching his stride to theirs as he carried their groceries. I know them enough to know how appreciative they would be, and I can picture the broad smile on O.’s face, because he always has a smile. While the young man is either new or rarely comes, I can picture him skating down the street, balancing that box he had on his head.

A line from a movie or television show has always stuck with me. I don’t know the show’s name, but the line is, “The only reason you ever look in anyone else’s bowl is to make sure they have enough.” That’s what O. did that day. He recognized that they didn’t have enough, recognized the barrier of why they couldn’t take more and stepped up.

Will you help me make sure that our community members have enough? Enough food, enough winter gear or holiday jingle? For winter gear, there are drop boxes all over town — the Y, Whimzy, Hyvee, Walmart, Bomgaars, Mayo. This is the season of really leaning into the needs, and yes — even the wants. Because everyone needs a bit of the wants in their life, something to brighten up the cold days.

Lastly, an invitation. To learn more about how to volunteer, donate or to adopt a family for Jingle, to see the Winter Gear Drive and Welcome Pantry in person, or to hear me talk about the history of how it all got started, we’d love you to join at our Fall in Love With United Way Open House. On Nov. 18 from 3 to 7 p.m., the doors are open at 411 S. First Ave., Albert Lea, MN 56007. Can’t make it or have questions? Call us at 507-373-8670 or write us at PO Box 686, Albert Lea, MN 56007.

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