BEMIDJI -- The United Way of Bemidji Area is planning to live united in real time as they kick off their annual campaign for the community starting Wednesday, Sept. 15, with “Live United Day.”

To be proclaimed by Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince Wednesday morning, as the third Wednesday in September, Live United Day will begin the 2021 campaign and future campaigns hosted by the United Way.

This year’s theme of “Live united… It’s more than a slogan,” comes on the heels of intense division and polarization in the world, which Executive Director Denae Alamano credited as the big idea behind the theme.

“No matter your political, religious or other views, people can agree with the work we’re doing,” Alamano said. “It doesn’t die with what’s happening (in the world), and we always strive to live united.”

Last year’s theme “Because of You,” was created as a way to thank members of the Bemidji community for their help since the pandemic began. At that time, many of their usual campaign events were either canceled or took place virtually.

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One such event that was canceled was the chili cook-off that traditionally started the campaign, and is also not taking place this year.

“We didn’t want to take the chance to plan it and not have it,” Alamano said.

This year, the kick-off on Sept. 15 will include a Backpack Buddies volunteer opportunity from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Sanford Center where volunteers can fill food packs, or backpacks with food, for area children.

These food packs, given on a weekly basis, include two entrées, one snack, two breakfast items, one vegetable, two fruits, milk and one high protein. These packs are purchased through the North Country Food Bank for $5.62 each, then distributed to children as best determined by the school.

According to the organization's website, Backpack Buddies was developed so children in the Bemidji Area School District could have food access when other resources weren’t available, including on weekends and school vacations.

Campaign details

With the campaign running through Sunday, Oct. 31, businesses have the chance to create their own workplace campaigns to raise funds.

Alamano explained that each business has a campaign coordinator who is in charge of collecting information, filling out a pledge form and leading the charge for their own fundraising however they see fit.

“Some businesses do internal fundraising, some have lunches, silent auctions, some do car spots,” Alamano said.

She also explained that funds are effectively raised by employees taking payroll deductions based on the amount they wish to give.

“Whether it’s 100 dollars or one dollar, it’s a nice way for anyone to give per paycheck,” Alamano said. In return, she also said that “our goal is to give a gift or volunteer opportunity in a way that’s meaningful to them.”

The United Way of Bemidji Area exceeded their fundraising goal from last year, $525,000, by raising $554,000 by the end of the 2020 campaign. This year, they have set their sights a bit higher aiming for $575,000.

“In being a leader in the community and seeing its needs that brings the need to continue to increase our fundraising,” Alamano said.

Once spring comes around, these funds will be allocated to 24 local nonprofits including the Bemidji Community Food Shelf, Village of Hope, North Country Food Bank and the Boys and Girls Club, among others.

United Way of Bemidji Area Executive Director Denae Alamano holds a "Live United" sign, the theme of this year's annual campaign is  “Live united… It’s more than a slogan.” Contributed
United Way of Bemidji Area Executive Director Denae Alamano holds a "Live United" sign, the theme of this year's annual campaign is “Live united… It’s more than a slogan.” Contributed

Familiar faces

Dave and Kelley Hengel became this year’s campaign co-chairs in August after Alamano asked them, and being long-time supporters of the United Way of Bemidji Area, they couldn’t say no.

“We’ve been given opportunities to really have a great life, and want everyone to have a great life,” said Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji. “This campaign theme is critical right now and 'Live United' is the message the community needs to live by.”

Kelley is a counselor at Bemidji High School, and with her and Dave’s involvement with other volunteer efforts in the community, Alamano thought they would fit the bill as co-chairs.

Much of Dave and Kelley’s efforts revolve around community outreach including reaching out to businesses and organizations as well as giving the everyday person a chance to participate.

“This is a very giving community and this campaign is an indication of that,” Dave said.

The couple also mentioned in a release that “charity is in the DNA of our community, it is who we are, and we are so excited to play a part in bringing our community together.”

Community involvement

Bemidji area residents will see no shortage of "Live United" posters, balloons and other decorations at some of their favorite businesses around town. These displays, a result of United Way business kits, are one way that Alamano is hoping to expand this year’s reach.

“The chili feed would’ve served around 300 people, but these business kits with the signs, this could help more people see those businesses,” Alamano said. She also mentioned that Bemidji area schools will have their own kits, as well.

Other events are taking place during the campaign including Business Blitz on Thursday, Sept. 16, a Trap Tournament on Thursday, Sept. 30, Coats for the Community distribution is set for Saturday, Oct. 2, Restaurant Week Oct. 11-15, the Women United Tribute Awards on Thursday, Oct. 28 and Movie Days Oct. 23-24.

The United Way is accepting donations for its annual Coats for the Community drive through Tuesday, Sept. 28, with distribution set for Saturday, Oct. 2. Contributed
The United Way is accepting donations for its annual Coats for the Community drive through Tuesday, Sept. 28, with distribution set for Saturday, Oct. 2. Contributed

Alamano also detailed broader initiatives that the organization is currently focusing on as 2021 nears its end. These include securing child abuse and suicide prevention funding, expanding mental health services, discussing local race relations and planning Wheels to Work, which would assist with car repairs for those unable to hold a job due to lack of transportation.

Along with the upcoming proclamation of Live United Day that can be viewed on the United Way's Facebook page, Alamano is eager to further solidify the campaign kick-off as its own day in the Bemidji area and get everyone excited for all other campaigns that will come along with it.

“The United Way is on the other end of the spectrum of economics when people are wondering when their next meal is, where they’re sleeping, dealing with sickness,” Alamano said. “Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we’re able to respond to these issues, further proving our commitment to our mission of living united.”

More information on the United Way of Bemidji Area’s campaign and initiatives can be found at www.unitedwaybemidji.org.