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Second annual 'Community Connect' draws good crowd despite weather

Jan Dahl, of the Coalition for Healthy Adolescent Sexuality, left, speaks Monday with Arryana Rodriguez, 6, and her father, Omar Medina, at her organization's booth during the Community Connect event. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

A stream of people trudged through snow Monday to get to Bethel Lutheran Church in downtown Willmar for a bowl of chili, free blankets and information about community programs to help them meet short- and long-term needs.

The second annual Community Connect event drew a good crowd, despite blustery weather.

It was shut down two hours early because of blowing and drifting snow, but organizers were pleased with the turnout and efforts to make people aware of local resources.

Representatives from 23 different organizations, such as Lutheran Social Service, He-artland Community Action Agency, the Willmar Area Food Shelf, The Salvation Army and the Southwestern Minnesota Adult Mental Health Consortium, teamed up to put on the event.

"The goal is to bring as many community resources to one place so that people can connect and learn more about the resources available in their community," said Rhonda Otteson, from Heartland Community Action Agency. "We want to bring it all together."

The need is obvious.

Otteson said Heartland is seeing record numbers of people requesting services through Heartland programs.

"I do know we are seeing record numbers of people struggling, facing housing emergencies and needing energy assistance," she said. There are more families qualifying for Head Start.

Otteson said the agency has a list of 200 households in the four-county area of Kandiyohi, Meeker, McLeod and Renville that are currently homeless or at risk of being homeless.

That includes families who say they have no home, are sleeping in vehicles, have been given an eviction notice or are facing foreclosure.

The numbers have never been that high before, said Otteson, who asked participants to fill out a survey about their living situations.

The survey asked where they stayed Wednesday night. The survey corresponds with the federal Housing and Urban Development's annual "Point-in-Time" homeless count.

The agency has also received a record number of applicants requesting emergency energy assistance. This winter Heartland has processed 3,000 applicants.

At the same time there are record needs in the community, there will likely be reduced state and federal funds available, Otteson said.

Chantell Hay, from Safe Avenues - Shelter House, was busy handing out free blankets to people who stopped by her table. She also spent time answering questions about the services that are available. Fortunately, she said, no one asked for immediate services or safety from an abusive relationship.

In between listening for their names during the door-prize drawings, participants warmed up by eating a bowl of free chili made with donated ingredients and "a lot of love" by committee members, said Christie Kurth, director of the Willmar Area Food Shelf.

Doug Doering, who works for Lutheran Social Service Youth Programs and is also a Willmar High School football coach, persuaded some of his youth football players to help out at the event after school. "We wanted to get some kids from the high school to help out so they can give back a little bit," he said.

The young volunteers also have a valuable gift of connecting with youth in the community that are struggling and could benefit from programs featured at the event, Doering said. "We want to get the word out that there are people in their corner willing to help out."

Many of the participants were teens and young families. Some were looking for furniture or a free winter jacket.

Otteson told several people that Heartland no longer had a supply of second-hand furniture because of the high demands. She referred them to the Food Shelf.

There was also an element of fun at the event. Besides the freebies offered at most tables, photography students from Ridgewater College took family portraits.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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