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Community Connect looks to give a little back to those most in need

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WILLMAR -- Families in crisis or living in poverty often don't have one of life's most basic mementoes -- the family portrait.

Often they can't afford to have a family picture taken, or they've been forced to leave cherished photos behind, says Christie Kurth, director of the Willmar Area Food Shelf.

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Free photo sessions for these families will be among the dozens of resources available next week at Heartland Community Ac-tion Agency's Community Co-nnect event.

"It's a great thing for families to be able to have," Kurth said of the photos. "We've gotten a lot of great feedback over the years from that."

Community Connect will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday at Bethel Lutheran Church. This is the fifth year, and organizers expect anywhere from 200 to 400-plus people to attend.

It's a chance to showcase the range of local programs and services and allow programs and the populations they serve to connect with each other.

"There is a huge need," said Chasity Ommodt, a supportive housing counselor with Heartland Community Action Agency and one of the organizers of the event.

A record 25 agencies have registered. There was so much interest that some had to be turned away, she said. "We had such a great response from all the service agencies. It just keeps growing."

Participating agencies range from public health and mental health to legal aid, youth and senior services and chemical dependency programs. The Willmar Area Food Shelf and Habitat for Humanity will be there, as will the Rice Regional Dental Clinic, the Willmar Public Library and the African Development Center.

For the first time, the Rural AIDS Action Network will be on site, providing free HIV tests, Ommodt said. "I'm very excited to have them this year."

Staff with the University of Minnesota Extension are giving a workshop on how to prepare a quick and nutritious meal. Ridgewater College is giving a presentation on educational options and financial aid.

"It's been very useful for clients," Kurth said. "They've learned about services they didn't necessarily know were there."

Interspersed with the information and workshops will be a free warm meal, free haircuts, free manicures and facials, and the free photography sessions, all done by volunteers.

Organizers also are planning a fashion show that highlights chic finds from local thrift stores. "You can purchase items at a reasonable price and still look good," Kurth said.

"We're trying to make it fun so people want to stay a little longer," Ommodt said. "We want them to enjoy coming."

Although needy families are the target population, the organizers of Community Connect emphasize the event is open to the entire community.

For service agencies, it's a valuable opportunity to network with each other, Kurth said. For the general public, it's a chance to learn more about the services that are available, she said. "I would love to encourage anyone from the community to come. They may know someone that could use something. We just hope that while they're here, they learn something new. I know that I do."

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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