Two days after George Floyd died, Valerie Quintana rallied a handful of friends to clean up a damaged Target store in south Minneapolis. By the end of the week, 400 strangers were clutching brooms and garbage bags to sweep up the shattered glass and debris across the city.
O'nika Craven saw the stores set ablaze and logged online from her Bloomington apartment to collect diapers, water and toilet paper for families suddenly without a grocery store.
A few miles away, in north Minneapolis, Sylvia Reese was out of work herself but eager to help, putting out a call on social media for essential household supplies.
Seven months later, the three women are still heading all-volunteer efforts in hopes of leading lasting change — handing out Thanksgiving meals and Christmas toys and setting up a center where students can study online. They aren't nonprofit experts with big budgets or a single employee, but as women of color with strong community ties, they're passionate about aiding neighbors in need.
"It's a lot of work, but I think because we feel that there's such a need out there, that this is something that we have to do," said Craven, 49, who works as a security guard at Edina High School and created O'nika's Angels with four friends. "We understand we are one day, one paycheck away from being on the other end of this. We want to make sure that if we're blessed, we want to be a blessing to others."
In the Land of 10,000 Nonprofits, churches in every community help those in need, as does a robust system of social services organizations armed with multimillion-dollar budgets. But in an extraordinary year defined by unprecedented crises, many Minnesotans with regular day jobs also organized pop-up food distributions, set up fundraisers to benefit gutted businesses or showed up to clean the streets.
These volunteer-led efforts may be more trusted by some residents reluctant to seek aid from huge social services agencies.
More than 13,000 nonprofits are registered with the state Attorney General's Office, although many may not be financially active or have employees. The office said anyone seeking donations for a charitable purpose needs to register with the state and even those not registered as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) have to follow charitable giving laws.
In north Minneapolis, Reese, 40, didn't see enough being done for fellow North Siders. Out of work herself, Reese said, she launched North Side Blessings in June — her one-woman effort to gather food and essentials. Relying on only her smartphone and church volunteers, she's grown her work beyond the city limits, passing out Christmas dinners of mashed potatoes and pork tenderloin for 170 families from Maple Grove to Hastings this month. The meals were funded by a Hennepin County grant to O'nika's Angels, Craven's nonprofit that teamed up with Reese.
"The need is so great," Reese said.
She started what she calls an adopt-a-family program, connecting a donor directly with a family to supply what they need — from new shoes to a dollhouse. Like her, many of them have hit hard times during the pandemic. The mother of three teens said she and her husband are surviving off $200 a week in unemployment assistance after he also lost his job as a forklift driver.
"I know how it is to struggle in poverty," she said.
On a recent night, Reese paused to pray with a woman picking up a Christmas meal box. Another woman arrived in the below-freezing temperatures in a sleeveless dress. Message me, Reese told her, and I'll find a coat.
"It's like a full-time job," Reese said of her Facebook page, adding that she plans to eventually register as a nonprofit. "I do this because that's what God had called me to do."
'A huge blessing'
In the chilly dark night, Liz Clark, 38, of Rosemount, pulled up to the North Side neighborhood, grateful to grab a special meal for her five daughters.
Her husband's hours were reduced as a federal worker, she said, and she lost her job at a school. The loss of stable paychecks and unexpected car repairs have made it a "tough year."
"It's kind of overwhelming," Clark said, adding that an anonymous stranger was planning to drop Christmas toys at her doorstep for her daughters thanks to Reese's adopt-a-family program. "We don't have extra right now for that. I don't know how people have extra to give, but it's great they are. It's a huge blessing."
Tracy Nordstrom, 54, knows she's one of the fortunate ones. While many nonprofits run holiday campaigns, it was the grassroots element of Reese's Facebook page that inspired her to buy $350 worth of towels, bed sheets and supplies for a family of nine.
"She's not moving mountains. She's not exacting change. She's not trying to end poverty. She's a neighbor helping neighbors," said Nordstrom, a freelance consultant who lives in Uptown. "It's about as low-budget and low-tech as you can get. It's pretty amazing."
The day after Floyd's death, Quintana, 51, joined throngs of protesters filling the streets.
She livestreamed on Facebook like so many others, then logged on the next day to ask friends to help clean up the Lake Street Target that was looted the night before.
"It just feels like a sense of duty," said Quintana, who lives in the Regina neighborhood near where Floyd died. "It's my neighborhood. If not us, then who? … It was like someone was ravishing my living room. It was very personal."
The boisterous Las Vegas native with a background in marketing and running sober houses was reinvigorated with a new mission for the Real Minneapolis, complete with a website and a logo. With family friend Mary Claire Francois, 19, a nursing student, the duo raised more than $30,000, held cleanups, put up port-a-potties at the 38th Street and Chicago Avenue intersection that became an instant memorial for Floyd and planted flowers in the rubble of charred buildings to spread some signs of hope.
Then came a youth garden at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue. Last month, they started a youth center for 39 students with tutors and free internet access, thanks to Allina Health donating offices.
"We didn't know what we were setting out to do," Quintana said of the initial response.
Like Reese's effort, Quintana's isn't yet registered as a nonprofit, but she plans to do so and dreams of opening a community center with financial literacy classes and other resources. It's difficult, she said, to find grants as a recent startup. "There is no resume to present," she said.
In Bloomington, Craven has no office either, but she and her team — a social worker, a school therapist and a retail store worker — are juggling day jobs with the new nonprofit work. After registering O'nika's Angels as a nonprofit, she received $30,000 from Hennepin County in federal CARES funding.
The grant and an estimated $22,000 in donations have rolled in from California, Florida and all over, Craven said, funding Thanksgiving dinners for more than 200 families, Christmas toys for 200 families, Christmas meals and a memorial brick at the State Fairgrounds in Floyd's honor. It's meaningful work, Craven said, that she wants to keep alive as long as donations keep coming in.
"We're just one small nonprofit trying to help as many people as we can," she said. "At the time, we didn't know we were planting a seed. We're a lifeline in this moment."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141