BEMIDJI -- While unprecedented challenges have been the unofficial theme of 2020, the United Way of Bemidji Area has created a theme of community togetherness for its annual campaign, in an effort to alleviate increased local hardship brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The campaign’s theme "Because of You," was created to honor the help the United Way has received from the community since the pandemic began.

The organization’s annual Community Campaign works to bring area businesses, organizations and individuals together to rally and raise funds to support important work and services for local families and individuals in need.

“We want our community to understand that it's only because of their donations that we exist,” said Denae Alamano, executive director at the United Way of Bemidji Area. “There's no state or federal funding, and it's because of our community's caring spirit that we're able to step up and do the work that we do.”

The campaign kicked off mid-September with pacesetter businesses raising more than $175,000. It runs through Saturday, Oct. 31, and about 50% of the campaign’s $525,000 goal has been fulfilled so far.

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Alamano said the annual campaign takes on an added significance this year, as the needs of the community have continued to increase.

“In normal times, our community was already growing in numbers because of people moving here and living here, and that, in turn, was growing the needs in our community,” Alamano said. “And in many cases, needs have doubled or tripled in number since COVID hit.”

She referenced United Way’s Backpack Buddies Food Packs program, which was developed to help ensure that children in the Bemidji school district have access to nutritious, non-perishable and easy-to-prepare food at times when other resources are not available, such as weekends and school vacations.

It has increased from providing food packs to 450 children to more than 1,200 children each week since the COVID-19 crisis began.

“All of our partner agencies are facing the same thing,” Alamano said. “They're either serving triple the amount of people, likely with the same amount of staff, or they've had to completely revamp their model based on regulations.”

“So to say COVID has hit us -- whether you say economically or just in the basic needs people have -- it's been huge,” she added.

Taking charge

Because many traditional fundraisers weren’t possible this year due to COVID-19, the United Way has had to navigate event and program planning in new ways.

“I think one thing I'm proud of for my team and the board was that rather than saying we can't do something, we've tried to say, ‘How can we do it?’” Alamano said.

In early October, they hosted Coats for the Community, which came to fruition despite not having an indoor venue due to pandemic regulations.

“I think about Coats for the Community and how our usual venues weren't able to host us, so we figured out how to do that anyway and ended up getting a tent and doing it outside,” Alamano said.

And while they couldn’t do their annual chili cook off this year, they managed to replace it with an online concert, which featured local bands and was “something fun that everyone could still be a part of,” Alamano said.

In addition to the Backpack Buddies Food Packs program, the organization recently held a school supply drive in partnership with Sanford Health. In total, 222 backpacks full of school supplies were dispersed throughout the county.

“It was something we don't normally do, but we took it on because it wasn't going to happen this year, and we're finding through our partners that it was definitely a need,” Alamano said.

They have also been partnering with North Country Food Bank, Inc. to expand food distribution programming and provide food drops here in Bemidji. On Friday, Oct. 16, they distributed Farmers to Families food boxes, which Alamano said will serve around 2,000 households.

Sanford Health volunteer Alicia Underdahl asks the number of families in a vehicle during a distribution event on Friday morning in the Sanford Center parking lot. Each family was able to receive one box of food during the drive-thru event. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Sanford Health volunteer Alicia Underdahl asks the number of families in a vehicle during a distribution event on Friday morning in the Sanford Center parking lot. Each family was able to receive one box of food during the drive-thru event. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Additionally, the United Way of Bemidji Area is moving forward with its fourth annual Women United Tribute Awards Breakfast on Oct. 22. However, this year it will be virtual.

“Rather than saying no, we tried to figure out how we still can make it happen,” Alamano said. “You can look at almost any sector in our community and see women who are leading, who are already doing awesome things. This is just a way to recognize what's already being done in our community.”

Moving forward

In May of this year, Alamano told the Pioneer that the United Way of Bemidji Area was focused on hitting three main targets in helping guide the community through the pandemic: response, recovery and rebuilding.

One of the major ways the organization responded to pandemic-related issues was its Emergency Fund, which was established in March to help “fill gaps” for local businesses in Bemidji and surrounding areas.

The organization raised more than $175,000 for the Emergency Fund, but now, Alamano said it is nearly exhausted.

“When we started the Emergency Fund, we knew state or federal funding was coming at some point, but we knew there was going to be a gap in time, so our goal was to fill that gap,” Alamano said. “The county here just recently allocated funds for CARES Act funding, so the timing of our fund almost being exhausted and that CARES Act funding is actually kind of perfect.”

Alamano said another step being taken to encourage rebuilding is a stress test on their partner agencies, to understand potential “gains and losses” and create future strategies based on them.

“We thought if we can do that with our partner agencies locally and see what the gaps are, not only could we step in and help find resources to help our partners, but also make some larger requests to foundations and different places to try to fill that gap that has been lost throughout the pandemic,” Alamano said.

However, she said a big piece of rebuilding comes down to how well the campaign does and what kind of response the community delivers.

“The campaign needs to do well. We want to be sustainable funding for our partner agencies who have lost lots of different resources and funding,” Alamano said. “I would say that the good thing happening -- the positive throughout the campaign -- is that people who are doing well really are stepping up and doing more and giving more. And I think that says a lot about Bemidji and how much they care about our community and the people in it.

“The United Way tries to be a place where anyone can give a meaningful gift,” she added. “Whatever is meaningful to you is meaningful to us because we want everyone to be a part of bettering our community.”

For more information about the United Way, the campaign or to make a donation call (218) 444-8929 or visit the United Way’s website www.unitedwaybemidji.org.