In her 15-year tenure at United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN), new executive director, Erin Shay, has seen many changes to the region, the organization, and the nature of fundraising, but one thing has remained constant.

“The people living and working in our communities are what makes us strong,” she said. “Local people helped us create our programs. They volunteer to keep the programs running. And of course, none of our programs could exist without local financial support.”

Shay has overseen the development of UWNEMN programs created to fill critical needs unique to the region, including Buddy Backpacks, Smiles United, United for Veterans, Comforts of Home, and the local sponsorship of the Imagination Library program.

“We know transportation is a huge barrier for so many in our spread-out rural communities,” she said. “So many of our programs were created to bring much needed items directly to folks where they live.”

Going to the people

Buddy Backpacks is arguably the organization’s best-known program, providing weekend meal-kits to more than 185 Koochiching County students each school year. Smiles United brings free and reduced cost dental care to uninsured and under-insured individuals of all ages by way of a mobile dental unit that sets up in local schools. Imagination Library delivers free books monthly directly to the homes of children ages 0-5.

United for Veterans provides financial assistance, retreats, and resource guides to veterans across the region, and Comforts of Home provides home goods to families and individuals experiencing housing emergencies.

Shay and her staff of five anticipate the need for these programs - and the programs provided by UWNEMN-supported Koochiching County agencies Falls Hunger Coalition, Salvation Army, Friends Against Abuse, and Koochiching Aging Options – will be higher than ever this year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to be able to expand our reach and support in Koochiching County this year,” Shay said.

'Give where you live'

Doing so comes with its fair share of challenges, Shay noted, as UWNEMN also anticipates a decrease in workplace campaign meetings due to COVID-19 concerns. Given the agency’s headquarters outside of Koochiching County, outreach here for the past 19 years has always been challenging – both reaching out to families and individuals in need of services and to potential donors.

“We rely heavily on a small team of incredibly dedicated volunteers in Koochiching County,” Shay said, expressing gratitude to Mike Silvers, Walt Buller, Soren Olson, and Julie and Terry Ehrman who help deliver Buddy Backpacks and to Lori Lyman who was instrumental in arranging a “donut forget to donate” campaign at PCA last year. “We would love to see that network grow.”

This year, UWNEMN has created online events, unique digital giving, and virtual meeting options in hopes of increasing outreach in Koochiching County communities.

“We want to meet people where they are at – whether that means meeting in person, doing Zoom presentations, or creating personalized web sites with electronic brochures and videos for employers to share directly with their employees,” said Resource Development & Events Director Elizabeth Kelly. “And we also want people to know that even if we don’t go to their workplace, they can still support our work in Koochiching County.

There are all kinds of ways to 'Give Where You Live'.”

Online, virtual

UWNEMN’s new online giving platform makes it possible for anyone to donate to the organization. Options include one-time donations, monthly donations, and new “round-up” donations which allow donors to connect a debit or credit card of their choice to round purchases up to the nearest dollar, donating spare change directly to UWNEMN.

“We want people to have say over not only how but where they invest in their community,” Kelly said. “All dollars and cents donated by Koochiching County individuals to UWNEMN stay in Koochiching County, and donors can also designate their donations to specific programs or agencies.”

This summer, UWNEMN hosted online auctions to support its Buddy Backpacks program and raised more than $10,000. This fall, they hope to bring more virtual events to fruition and encourage Koochiching County residents to participate.

“All these virtual events so far have been specifically dedicated to support Buddy Backpacks,” Kelly said. “Getting food to children this school year is more critical than ever.”

COVID-19 response

UWNEMN has also been hard at work to raise funds to support families, individuals, agencies, and programs financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To-date, the organization has raised more than $17,000 in Koochiching County and helped three individuals in the county who have lost work or had reduced hours due to the pandemic.

“In addition to growing the fund, we really want to grow awareness that the funding is available in Koochiching County,” Shay said. “In order to help the most people, we really need help spreading the word.”

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