Guest column: Serving with a mission of making the community better

Published 11:15 am Saturday, June 1, 2024

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The days are longer, our chickens are laying eggs, and summer is just around the corner. That means I’m back at it, writing articles weekly to give you all the happenings at United Way. There’s lots to talk about this summer, but this week I’m going to share with you a series of stories that converged into one beautiful thing because they perfectly illustrate the power of community.

Twice a year, my kids look forward to the Friends of the Library book sale. When they were younger, we could go and come home with a good stack of books, no matter what day we went. Now that they’re independent readers, it’s critical that we get there right when they open, and that we’re members to take advantage of the preview sale. They save their allowance, carefully counting their quarters. Their record one year was bringing home a whopping 63 books, the crowning achievement being my daughter’s score of an entire series of books she was interested in.

At United Way, we partner with the Meals to Go program, which means I get to see volunteer drivers on a regular basis. One of those volunteers is also involved with Friends of the Library, and she was making sure to tell me about the sale. As we chatted, she explained to me they were looking for a resource to take the extra books after the sale. I suggested she connect with the DAV, which worked out beautifully by the way. During this conversation, I told her that we wanted to put out a Little Free Library and Little Free Pantry in the spring after our landscaping was completed. We talked and decided that there was no reason we couldn’t start up a Little Free Library indoors — at that time, we had people waiting for long periods to shop in the pantry. She told me to come by and pick out books. So one sunny afternoon, I had my kids and a bonus one, and I put them to work. I picked out books, and they loaded up the crates and put them in the car. They found a few more treasures themselves. The DAV guys were there and made short work of loading up their trailer. The kids and I took our treasures back to the office and the United Way Little Free Library was born.

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Some weeks, it’s not touched at all. Other weeks, I notice a rotation of books. Once, I found three books as part of a series that I had picked out sitting on the end table. I scooped them up and went and checked with the shoppers to see if they had forgotten them. The young woman I found was so relieved that I brought them in, she said, “Yes! This is my favorite author and they don’t have these at the library! I would have been so mad to find out I forgot them!”

A friend of mine was moving and offered up a stack of cookbooks. They were gone the next day. The following week, two of them were back, with paper marking a few pages with handwritten notes, and a Post-it note with a name on the front of the book. The cookbook was placed on top of the shelf, and later that pantry shift, a woman mentioned, “Oh good, she brought it back for me.” Two pantry shoppers had each wanted the book, so they made a deal to try out certain recipes and let the other know how it went. One day I walked through the waiting room, and there was a brown bag full of children’s books with a note saying, “For Little Library.” I’ve said it before — United Way belongs to our community, and to our volunteers. They’ve taken ownership of this space in such a beautiful way.

There’s a man who comes to shop at the pantry that we’ve known for a few years. He has a little bit of an over-the-top personality, and we enjoy that while making sure we maintain good, healthy boundaries. He came in one day to shop at the pantry when I happened to be there. He asked me how much he was allowed to take from the first refrigerator, and I was a little surprised, I told him, and let him know that as he moved through the signs on the doors would give him the information he needed. He looked at me and said, “I know, but I can’t read.”
I know many things about him, his struggles, his medical history and his family relationships. He hadn’t shared that with me before. We moved through the pantry, and I quietly told him that if he wanted to change that, he could call me and I’d help him find the resources to learn how to read. He shrugged and told me, “Maybe.” I didn’t push because the goal that day was making sure he had food. This was something it took three years before he shared that with me, and I wasn’t going to risk him not coming back for food.

A month or two later, Nikolle shared a story with me. Our pantry shopper came in and sat down on the floor to go through the children’s books. He picked out a few and told Nikolle that he was learning how to read. He read a couple of pages to her, proud to show off his newly learned skills. With that story, I felt as if all the little moments that came before converged into this one beautiful moment. A community member learned to read and knew he could find some books here to practice with. This is the power of a library, the power of having groups like Friends of the Library that make it possible to spread the books throughout the community. Our community member doesn’t always have the ability to get around town, and having books available at the same place where he can get food increases his opportunity to access reading material.

Volunteerism. Advocacy. Friendships built over cookbooks. Building trusting relationships. This is what we’ve created the United Way to be. A very different place from the past, but still rooted in the same values that we’ve always had — the same mission of making our community a better place. If you’re interested in joining us this summer, give us a call at 507-373-8670 or visit our website at to learn more about the many ways to volunteer.

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