David Kolleh's big smile never faltered even as COVID-19 swept into Minnesota late last winter, making his job caring for seniors in St. Louis Park even more challenging.
Kolleh was known for colorful, stylish outfits and kindness. A memory care program manager, he hosted countless videoconferences to connect his charges with loved ones when the virus forced an end to family visits at the Hodroff Pavilion for Memory Care at Roitenberg Family Assisted Living.
Sadly, Kolleh would lose his own life to the new virus. The Liberian immigrant, who was in his early 60s, died in May. He left behind a wife and 13 children. Photos of a smiling Kolleh are now posted at the care center. "We very much miss David," said former colleague Leanne Wollerman, who called him a "quiet hero."
One of the grimmest pandemic realities is the death toll among those whose dedication puts them at personal risk — the nation's health care workers. Estimates of the toll range from 1,425 to over 1,700. Too many have been lost and many more will be, which is why it is to Minnesota's credit that a prominent effort to aid grieving families is rooted here.
The new Frontline Families Fund, announced Nov. 16, is the result of timely teamwork between well-known scientist Michael Osterholm and a local nonprofit. The mission is a noble one: to provide financial assistance to the families of health care workers who have died from COVID.
Osterholm serves on President-elect Joe Biden's COVID task force and leads the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. His professional connections have yielded a deep understanding of how the pandemic has affected health care workers.
In an interview, Osterholm said he couldn't stop thinking of those who lost a loved one who was a caregiver. He knew something had to be done to help. "It is the right thing we could do. It is the only right thing we could do," Osterholm said.
Calls to Minnesota's nonprofit community yielded a connection with the respected Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation. That organization had been weighing responses to the pandemic as well, said Jeremy Wells, who serves as senior vice president for philanthropic services.
Conversations between the two melded Osterholm's vision with the foundation's expertise. Wells also forged connections with two other nonprofits, the Brave of Heart Fund and Scholarship America, both of which will play key roles in administering the funds. The aid will mainly be direct grants to families, though scholarships may be available if enough money is raised.
Families can fill out and submit applications for this aid at tinyurl.com/FrontlineApply. Kolleh's family is strongly encouraged to apply and could be eligible for up to $15,000 in short-term relief, with additional dollars potentially available for longer-term needs.
The new fund's initial fundraising goal is $1 million, and over $700,000 has been raised already. Osterholm and Wells said hitting the $3 million mark would allow the fund to help many more families, and they hope that they will be able to raise far more than that.
Recently, the fund has garnered celebrity support, with singer Josh Groban tweeting about it recently. The Minnesota Medical Association has also lent its backing, saying "The money raised from this fund will never extinguish the grief experienced by the families of health care workers who have paid the ultimate price in this battle against COVID-19. But, it will go to great lengths to help these families as they try to put their lives back together."
The new fund merits Minnesotans' support as well, particularly as many consider holiday donations. Health care workers valiantly stepped forward when COVID hit. A gift to help those they left behind will honor their courage and sacrifice.