Lending a Helping Hand: Heron Lake Woman Focuses on Others
This is the case with Heron Lake Caring Connections, a Facebook page the longtime Heron Lake resident set up in December to empower local people to help local people.
The idea for the page arose out of Smith’s attempts to donate an artificial Christmas tree with all the trimmings in early December. There were no takers. At the same time, she listed a box of free Bedford Collapsible Tape that sparked all kinds of interest.
“The second in line said she was disappointed because she wanted to make items for her family because they didn’t have a lot of money,” Smith said. She gave the woman the tree and the ornaments, and the woman was delighted to have it.
The ordeal made Smith wonder why it is so difficult to connect with people in need. She was there, wanting to give something, but she couldn’t find a taker.
She believed that creating a Facebook page specifically for the residents of the Heron Lake area would not only encourage people to ask for help, but would foster a spirit of generosity among those who can offer what they have.
“I had seen in some of the other local communities where people said they needed a box of diapers,” Smith said. “This is what I thought our site could be.”
Smith created the page in memory of her husband, who died a year and a half ago.
“He grew up in a very poor family – the youngest of seven children,” Smith said. “He was talking about Christmas time. Her father was a school janitor and would bring the Christmas tree home during the winter break. Often there were no gifts. “
The Facebook page went live on December 8. Smith is delighted with the support, although the page has yet to see many requests.
“Sometimes we just need to pay better attention to our surroundings,” she said, noting that one day she noticed a person walking without socks. She gathered some necessary clothes and delivered them to the family home.
“They were very grateful,” she said. “It was a big lesson for me. We need to watch what is going on around us. People are very proud and it’s hard to admit that you need help.
“It’s about ‘Need a hand, lend a hand.’
“I really wanted to create an environment where people feel comfortable and non-judgmental,” Smith said. “Everyone struggles at some point in their life. We can all probably identify for a moment. When we can give back, we do. “
Smith’s actions didn’t stop with the creation of a Facebook page. She teamed up with Niki Fisher, part-time Dean of Students and Mental Health Liaison for Greater Minnesota Family Services in Heron Lake Elementary, to make a difference for students at Heron Lake and Okabena Schools.
“In a small school, you get to know people on such a personal level,” Fisher said. “You become aware of different lives at home and different family situations.
“I have been here for six years and I would never have anticipated the needs six years ago as I do now,” she added.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed emphasis on these needs.
“There are just a lot of parents working full time and they still can’t make ends meet,” she said. “I think that’s the hardest part – they’re very willing to work, they just aren’t able to keep up.”
Fisher spoke of people who had second jobs in restaurants, bars and other places affected by the pandemic and who lost their secondary income. She sees the fallout of this in the classroom, with some kids saying they don’t have soap or detergent at home, or that “mum has to wait for the food shelf to open”. is why they couldn’t bring a snack. at school.
It can be heartbreaking to hear these words spoken by children. It was for Fisher, who not only remembers being in this situation herself once, but also because she is a mother of six.
Fisher responded by reaching out to his colleagues, encouraging them to donate clothes their own children had passed out in school.
“I appreciate that people give me clothes, so when my kids are too big for them, I return them to school,” she says. “Our free and reduced breakfast is very high here. We live in an area of high poverty. “
Several years ago, a third-grade teacher at Heron Lake Elementary School started a Coins for Kids program in which students donated their spare change. All the money raised was used to buy coats, hats and gloves for the students who did not have them.
“About two years ago, the need exceeded what was collected,” Fisher said.
When Smith first contacted Fisher, she was looking to “adopt” a few families who might be in need over Christmas and provide them with gifts such as clothes, food, and toys.
Rather than helping just one family, Fisher suggested collaborating on a Christmas basket program. We learned what we needed and, within 10 days, enough supplies had been collected to fill 15 gift baskets for customers at the Heron Lake Food Shelf. The baskets helped mitigate the loss of Giving Trees, which were not offered in many churches in 2020 due to the pandemic.
With the success of the gift baskets, Smith and Fisher went on to work to meet some needs in the Heron Lake-Okabena School District. Fisher and his fellow teachers created a list of 35 K-12 students who could use a little holiday pick-me-up, while Smith solicited donations and went shopping.
There were enough supplies to fill a basic necessities bag with personal care items, new mittens and a hat for each student, as well as sets of clothes, coats and shoes, and a collection of 200 new toys. In addition, each student received a gift certificate for a pizza.
When the students picked out their bags and items, it surprised Smith that clothes were almost always the kids’ first stop, while toys were the last thing they looked for. She told about a student who chose a pair of underwear before looking at anything else.
“Every bag of necessity was given out and every jacket was donated,” Fisher said. The remaining toys were distributed among the teachers to restock their class prize boxes.
When everything was handed out, Fisher told Smith she hoped to open a store stocked with personal care items, school supplies, and clothing that would be available free to students.
“Within days, I had checks for $ 200 and people dropped off underwear and other items,” Fisher said.
“We started absolutely at the right time,” said Smith. “People are planning to donate this time of year.
The Caring Connections school store in Okabena was stocked and ready by the end of January. Students in Jeff Drent’s workshop class built a wooden shelf to hold the supplies, and teacher Carrie Mischke offered to oversee the store in an old storage cupboard in her classroom.
Earlier this month, a similar store opened at Heron Lake Elementary.
Now, says Smith, the question is how to continue to support the program.
“One of my goals is to have a tree of hope for the whole year,” she said. “I haven’t figured it out yet. One of the challenges right now is that there are people out there who would like to donate to our cause (and it’s tax deductible). “
This requires applying for nonprofit status as 501 (c) 3, which Smith is working on.
If it were up to her, the school stores would continue for as long as there was a need – and that may well continue into the future.
“I went to the church leaders in Heron Lake and Okabena and asked them if there was any need in their congregation,” Smith said, adding that she had spoken to some about the establishment of a space where they could store items.
“How many of us don’t have an extra Crock-Pot that someone could possibly use,” she says. “I hope we can do it one day. There are a lot of people in our community – it’s not just the kids who need help.
“I absolutely know that there are seniors in our community who need help,” Smith added.