BEMIDJI -- When the global pandemic hit the world earlier this spring, many around the community were sent reeling.

The blow was softened for a number of people as the United Way of Bemidji Area stepped in to connect those in need with resources to help. And not only are they pitching in on a local level, much of what they are doing is helping organizations around the state.

“We are leading the way on how we are approaching things on a state-wide perspective,” said Denae Alamano, executive director at the United Way of Bemidji Area.

As a member of the state board for the United Way of Minnesota she is able to connect with others and share ideas.

“I get on our state board calls sometimes hoping that I can get some ideas of things to do here,” Alamano said. “It seems like we are continually the ones bringing the ideas, which is great, I’m just kind of surprised at that. But it’s good, because that way we can help the whole state and that’s good for everybody.”

The three main things they have been focusing on are: response, recovery and rebuilding.

One of the major ways they have been responding to local issues occurring as a result of the pandemic have been things like their Emergency Fund, which was established back in March to help local businesses in Bemidji and surrounding areas. So far they have received more than $160,000 in funding, and issued over $104,000 to area organizations.

They have also been collaborating with Community Resource Connections and the community resource helpline 211.

“When people are wondering things like ‘when is the food shelf open?’ or ‘what are the new hours for Northern Dental Access Center?’ Or things like that,” Alamano explained. “People can call 211 and get that information and other questions they need those immediate responses to.”

When focusing on recovery, the team zeros in on how they can help people function and get them back to work. One program they recently joined is the Step Up to Sit program, which helps to coordinate sitters with families who need childcare heading into summer.

“The reality of having just one person come into your home might be a better option than bringing your child to daycare or a bigger facility where they will interact with a lot more people,” Alamano said.

So far, they have 14 sitters signed up and ready to work.

“Hopefully it can give jobs to some college and high school kids who have come back to the community and maybe don’t have their service job they were going to do,” she said. “And also to help parents get back to work by having a sitter come in.”

Their goal with the program is to fill a gap where they’ve seen a need, not to replace daycares or take away from other available programs.

“We know safety is so key right now,” she said. “Our whole goal in joining this program was to be looking forward a bit, rather than simply responding to immediate things and provide the community with another option.”

Those interested in becoming sitters or families who may need childcare can contact the United Way and they will pair people up based on coordinating schedules and specific needs. After connecting the pair, it’s up to the sitter and family to work out the details such as scheduling and pay.

Gifts of Hope initiatives

The United Way has also been a big player in the community Gifts of Hope Fund program, thanks to a donation of $100,000 from Steve and Jill Hill. The funds were divided evenly between the Bemidji Alliance for the gift certificate program and the United Way for a separate program.

“With the gift card rounds that the community is aware of through the Bemidji Alliance, 80 businesses will benefit from that program,” Alamano said. “And there is another 20 that the United Way has gotten to work with.”

With the portion of money they received, the United Way purchased gift cards from 18 of those businesses covering categories such as groceries, restaurants, gas, clothes, hair and something fun.

“We purchased $50,000 worth of gift cards and broke them up into $500 gift card packages,” she said. “Then we had our partner agencies basically apply for families that are struggling -- maybe they are already low-income families, but they are struggling even more now due to COVID-19.”

They plan to help out two more restaurants -- Bar 209 and Dairy Queen -- next week when they put on their “COVID-19 Caravan” set for May 28.

Vehicles will meet in the Sanford Center parking lot and caravan around the lake while learning about correct and up-to-date information on COVID-19 in the Bemidji area by listening to KZY 95.5 FM. Each registered participant will receive a link to a site where they can print off a free activity pack to play games during their trip around the lake. An event map will outline a Sanford Health swag pickup spot for participants to collect goodies.

“People can sign up and purchase a meal from 209 for dinner and if they complete their activity kit they get a free Dairy Queen Treatzza Pizza,” Alamano said.

Community involvement

“Our whole goal from start to finish has been based on meeting what our partner agencies have as gaps or needs, and that’s who we always are,” Alamano said. “For us, we feel like we are doing the same work we always do, but the need for it is so great right now there are more eyes on us. We are just proud of what we can do right now to help our community.”

Volunteering in the community has been a large aspect of one gap they have been filling. Since March 17, they have coordinated more than 500 volunteers who have worked around 2,300 volunteer hours in total. They have been helping at the Bemidji Community Food Shelf, with Ruby’s Pantry distribution and more.

In partnering with Compass Rose, they have handed out an estimated 65 activities kits for children at shelters around the area.

“We have also gotten in around 3,000 homemade face masks so far for service organizations in the school district,” Alamano said.

Their Backpack Buddies program is now serving more than 1,200 children, rather than the usual 450 they were serving before the pandemic hit.

Next steps

“But as we look at rebuilding that’s really what is coming next,” she said. “Rebuilding is really about sustainability, and how we at the United Way can remain stable for our partners and our community, while also helping those partners see where they are in terms of stability.”

One thing they are looking at doing is a stress test, which Alamano explained would include financial pieces, staffing, number of people being served, what services are provided and more.

“Hopefully looking at all these things would help businesses and organizations internally, but also help us at the United Way to see what the gaps are that we can help fill,” she said. “We can see if we should be looking to bigger organizations to ask for funds, or try to mobilize more volunteers to help, or whatever the situation might be.”

She emphasized that without all of the people in the community donating and coming alongside the United Way, none of what they have been doing would have been possible.

“The big slogan for COVID-19 has been we’re in this together, but the United Way’s slogan is ‘we can do more together than any one of us can do alone’ and everything we’ve done has been such a testament to that,” Alamano said.

“We have the words ‘live united’ in paper hearts on our window right now and I just think what a time to be living united together. It’s just who we are and I’m so proud of that.”

Nikki Brink, board president for the United Way of Bemidji Area, said she’s proud of the work they have been doing. “Even though our board has been involved, it’s been Denae and her team really driving all of these initiatives, and they're just doing an amazing job.

“I feel that the United Way is a hub,” Brink said. “It’s bringing people and organizations together. We see the impact, but what’s meaningful is hearing the stories and testimonials of the people who are benefiting from United Way’s help.”

Northwoods Caregivers is one organization that recently shared about how funding received through the United Way has benefitted them.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created barriers for elders and individuals living with disabilities in accessing basic needs and services,” they said in a release. “Thanks to our local United Way, Northwoods Caregivers is offering grocery shopping/delivery and medical transportation free of charge to eligible clients.”

They also mentioned they were able to purchase tablets with the funds, which will be used to support communication for loved ones of individuals living in facilities who are unable to allow visitors during the pandemic.

The United Way of Bemidji Area covers Beltrami, Clearwater and Hubbard counties, but Brink mentioned they have also recently been able to help out organizations such as the Cass Lake Food Shelf -- even though it’s technically out of their coverage area.

“When you step back and look at the big picture, it’s like ‘Oh my gosh,’ so much has happened in such a short period of time to benefit so many people,” Brink said. “It’s fun to watch the community come together and rally around supporting each other. It’s not only exciting, it’s inspiring.”