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Building bridges: Local organizations hold first Ridgeway Community Picnic in Bemidji

This summer’s first Ridgeway Community Picnic was held on May 24, a series of events started by the Bemidji Rotary Club to support and build community with local residents.

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Attendees make their way through the food line on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, during a Ridgeway Community Picnic near the Ridgeway Court Apartments in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Despite the clouds overhead and rain earlier in the afternoon, families and community members from the Ridgeway Court neighborhood gathered Tuesday, May 24, on a nearby lawn for a picnic and games, all hosted by local organizations.

The first of many picnics planned for this summer, the event was a part of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Initiative, a project organized by the Bemidji Rotary Club to support and build community with residents in the Ridgeway Court Apartments and surrounding area.

“Picnics are just one way we can be in community with people and get to know each other,” said Sandy Hennum, a Rotary member and the executive director of Village of Hope in Bemidji. “This is just about being together and doing things.”

The Ridgeway apartments are one of the few low-income housing options in Bemidji, and as such, attract a number of individuals and young families trying to start their lives and find opportunities.

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Pictured from left: Rotarian Tom Reise poses during a Ridgeway Community Picnic on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, with Rotarian and Village of Hope Executive Director Sandy Hennum, Rotarian Ted Will, and Rotarian and Bemidji City Councilor Audrey Thayer, in front of the Rotary Mobile Clubhouse near the Ridgeway Court Apartments in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Unfortunately, the apartments and surrounding neighborhoods have also seen an increased police presence due to crime and drug overdoses, something the Rotary initiative and partnering organizations are trying to address through connecting and working with the community.

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“We all kind of work together, it’s been unbelievable,” said Audrey Thayer, a Rotary member and Bemidji City Councilor. “(It’s) the most worthwhile community project I’ve ever been involved in in my life.”

The picnic featured food, arts and crafts, drawings and outdoor games to take part in. The plan is for a similar picnic to be held every two weeks throughout the summer.

“The turnout keeps growing,” said Bemidji City Councilor Josh Peterson, who attended the picnic and represents the neighborhood. “There’s a community growing and building here.”

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Attendees make their way through the food line on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, during a Ridgeway Community Picnic near the Ridgeway Court Apartments in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Alongside partnering with local residents, the initiative works with organizations like Sanford Health, the Bemidji Area Boys and Girls Club and even the Bemidji Police Department to offer programs, activities and classes for neighborhood families and children.

These have included crafts and reading classes for children, budgeting classes for adults and parents, and assistance with everything from filling out paperwork and forms to finding transportation.

“It’s about just giving support to people with their goals,” Hennum said. “People are the experts in their own lives. They know what they need.”

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Children color pictures on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, during a Ridgeway Community Picnic near the Ridgeway Court Apartments in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

The work the initiative has been doing hasn’t gone unnoticed, by community members or those who live nearby.

Dustin Brakemeier, who owns a neighboring trailer park, saw the good that was being done and recently donated the use of a brand new trailer to serve as a base for the group and its programming.

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“We’ve called it the mobile clubhouse,” Hennum said, explaining that it’s going to be used to host activities and resources for the neighborhood and hopes that it will become a well-known fixture in the community.

Housing struggles

The picnic also came just a week after the city condemned one Ridgeway apartment building for unsafe conditions, which left 10 families uncertain about their future housing.

“We started to see a deterioration in the buildings,” Thayer said. “It took us a while to get (to that decision) because we had to weigh the families that lived there.”

Since the news broke, the city and members of the initiative have been working diligently to help the families impacted to find safe housing.

“It’s daunting to fill out those applications,” Thayer said. “Our families here, they may not fit the criteria that someone would like.”

This is where Terrie Mead comes in, an AmeriCorps worker whose position was funded by a grant the initiative was awarded. Mead is stationed at the apartments and works with residents to help with housing issues.

“My job is to help people find housing, qualify for housing, keep their housing,” Mead said, explaining the different types of barriers people face, from credit history to housing vouchers. “There are all these kinds of quirky things to work through.”

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Volunteers serve food to event-goers on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, during a Ridgeway Community Picnic near the Ridgeway Court Apartments in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

The broader Bemidji community has become involved in trying to help the families ordered to vacate find housing.

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“There’s a lot of people asking questions on what they can do to help,” said Peterson. “Bemidji has always been good at rallying together.”

While some of these more recent challenges unfold, the Rotary initiative and its partners are continuing to work with the Ridgeway community and welcome others to join in and give back.

“Rotary is service above self, that’s why I joined,” Hennum said. “It’s really important for me to give to the community.”

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Ridgeway Community Picnic attendees play Indigenous-inspired games on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, near the Ridgeway Court Apartments in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Related Topics: BEMIDJI ROTARY CLUB
Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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