In just one year, so much has changed for Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP).
The Bloomington nonprofit, which runs the state’s largest food shelf, moved from a cramped, shabby building into a plush space with a big lobby and computers galore. It hired five people, boosting its staff to 20. And little VEAP is now a landlord to a giant tenant: Hennepin County human services, which rents half the new building.
The two moved into a renovated warehouse at 9600 Aldrich Av. S. in January to offer people a one-stop shop to find services and help. VEAP offers a food shelf, senior services, temporary financial help and a variety of other services; county services include welfare, food stamps, child support issues, family stabilization, veterans services and a once-a-month dental clinic for kids.
The county’s move to share VEAP’s building is part of a new policy to locate human services offices where people can get to them easily. Instead of having only a central office in downtown Minneapolis, six social services hubs are planned. The Bloomington and Brooklyn Center hubs are open. Hubs will open in Hopkins and north Minneapolis later this year, and two more Minneapolis hubs are planned in 2015.
Despite worries about merging two very different cultures in Bloomington — a small, grass-roots organization powered largely by volunteers now a landlord to big-government — it’s going well, officials say.
“We’ve had lots of hiccups and lots of challenges, but our caseworkers are talking with [county staff], and it’s exactly what we wanted,” said Susan Russell Freeman, VEAP’s longtime executive director. “It’s highly successful.”
Kendrick Lewis, Hennepin County hub coordinator at the VEAP location, said having a food shelf in the same building is an answer to the most common request of people who seek human service help.
“It’s been fantastic,” he said. “Both sides really see assisting these clients and [being] respectful and helpful a priority. … It’s been a huge help for our clients, signing up for cash and medical benefits with us and having everything all in one place.”
Two weeks ago, a man came to VEAP for the food shelf and told a VEAP social worker that his application to the county for disability services seemed to be stalled.
Freeman said that instead of having to send the man downtown — a difficult trip if people don’t have a car — VEAP and county staff talked and the issue was straightened out in one visit.
A bright new site
For VEAP, which this year has a budget of about $1.8 million and last year helped 17,400 people from Bloomington, Richfield, Edina and south Minneapolis, the new site is a dramatic upgrade from its old location. There is a spacious lobby, a bank of computers that people can use to access MNsure’s website, private rooms for clients to meet with social workers and drop-in child care.
Space to store and sort food for the food shelf has been greatly expanded. Wait times to visit the food shelf have dropped dramatically.
For the first time, VEAP has a kitchen. Volunteers use produce that’s on the edge of spoiling, like bananas, to make products like banana bread that can be offered at the food shelf.
Starting in June, the kitchen will be used to teach healthy eating classes. One day last week, a University of Minnesota Extension Service nutritionist and a VEAP volunteer offered samples of pumpkin soup at a stand in the food shelf. VEAP had received many cases of canned pumpkin, and the simple soup recipe used ingredients that were available at the food shelf.
On the sample stand was a sign-up for people who were interested in taking a cooking class at the VEAP kitchen, which has 10 mobile cooktops that can be arranged in an arc around an instructor.
Metro Transit redid its bus routes to help people get to the new building. VEAP is poised to begin a summer youth food program to fill the meal gap for kids who receive free and reduced lunches during the school year, and the group is adjusting its free van ride program for people who need to get to the doctor or food shelf to help people right from their front door instead of curb-to-curb.
All seems well.
Wanted: More volunteers
Yet VEAP’s underdog mind-set hasn’t changed much from 40 years ago, when a handful of volunteers who wanted to help needy people got a Richfield hardware store to donate shelf space for storage.
Though the new building is filled with new furniture, Freeman kept her old donated desk and bookcase and her bulldog persistence to help people who are living in or on the brink of poverty. Need for food, she said, is just a symptom that people are in crisis and need other help. VEAP is seeing increasing numbers of seniors, and even people between ages 55 and 65.
So she’s looking to boost the number of volunteers from 1,000 to 1,500 in the next few years. She wants to raise money to fill gaps for housing support after state and federal governments cut funding for those programs, and she is trying to raise $5 million to pay off costs associated with the new building, which cost $7.1 million to buy and renovate. Hennepin County’s rent payments go toward that debt.
“We’re accomplishing what we set out to accomplish, but we have so much more to do,” Freeman said. “I want to push money back into programs.”