From food shelves to schools, Minnesota organizations on the front lines of the pandemic will receive reinforcements this summer from a special AmeriCorps program that plans to double its volunteers.

One year into the pandemic, ServeMinnesota — the service commission that administers AmeriCorps state programs — is expanding the Emergency Response Initiative, created last spring to respond to COVID-19.

The organization is seeking more than 700 people from June to August. Last year, about 300 volunteers helped with everything from COVID contact tracing to packing items at food shelves and assisting seniors with family visits on Zoom.

"This is a rare opportunity right now to serve the community," said Lindsay Dolce, chief advancement officer at ServeMinnesota. "This is a great way to find that connection to your community and provide support to organizations that really, really need help right now."

The Emergency Response Initiative costs $4.4 million, backed by federal and state funding as well as private donations. The 700 volunteers will join a total of about 1,800 Minnesotans in Ameri-Corps, working on everything from tutoring students in the Reading Corps to mentoring peers with substance abuse in the Recovery Corps.

Nonprofits across Minnesota have struggled with volunteer shortages during the pandemic. Activities were scaled back for social distancing, and many older adults who often volunteer couldn't because of possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Now, even as more Minnesotans get vaccinated and return to volunteering in person, a growing number of people need help getting food — many for the first time.

In Oakdale, 1,200 households drive each week to the Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf for food boxes, three times the number of people the nonprofit helped pre-pandemic.

"There's really no way we could be serving the number of people we're serving now without increasing our capacity greatly," said executive director Jessica Francis.

Enter Kayla Glaraton and two other AmeriCorps members, who helped prepare the boxes last year, helping with culturally specific foods.

"It just feels good to help people through a really tough time," said Glaraton, 23, who studied journalism at the University of Minnesota but felt compelled to serve in her hometown of Oakdale after graduation.

She and another AmeriCorps member were later hired by the east metro nonprofit, bringing the employed staff to five.

This year, Francis aims to increase the number of mobile food shelf visits to seniors and low-income residents, an effort she said can happen only with extra help.

"This is such an unprecedented time and the need is so high in our community right now," Francis said. "This program gives people that opportunity to give back ... at a really critical time."

Last year, more than 1,000 people applied for help from the Emergency Response Initiative, from retirees to college students who lost internships or job opportunities because of COVID-19.

The deadline to apply this year is May 19 at

The AmeriCorps members will typically work 35 hours a week for 10 weeks, and get a modest living stipend plus about $1,300 for student loans or education. The Twin Cities often ranks No. 1 in the United States for the number of volunteers in AmeriCorps, a national service program often referred to as the domestic Peace Corps.

When the pandemic hit, Anna Reimann, 23, of Cottage Grove was between jobs and wanted to do more than make masks for hospitals and senior homes. She joined the emergency initiative at Christian Cupboard, and now the U grad who studied child psychology is continuing the work as part of the Reading Corps.

"I felt helpless being at home," she said. "It's really rewarding to serve those around you."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141