Minnesota nonprofits that halted volunteer shifts due to rising COVID-19 cases are reopening their doors or hoping to do so soon in 2021.
Many nonprofits completely scuttled volunteering when the pandemic hit the state last March or shifted to at-home or online activities. Other hunger relief organizations such as Every Meal (formerly the Sheridan Story) and Second Harvest Heartland scaled back volunteer shifts to follow safety measures and then paused volunteering completely in November as Minnesota cases spiked again.
This week, Every Meal and Second Harvest, the largest of seven food banks in the state, resumed volunteer shifts with COVID-19 safety measures. But volunteers at Second Harvest haven't returned as usual, leaving many open slots.
"We do have an urgent need for volunteers right now," said Julie Greene, who oversees volunteer services at Second Harvest.
Every January, Minnesota nonprofits brace for a lull in help following the holidays. But this year, the usual slowdown is exacerbated by the pandemic. Most corporations aren't encouraging in-person group volunteering and many older adults, whom nonprofits rely on for volunteering, have stopped showing up because they're more susceptible to coronavirus complications.
At Bridging, a Twin Cities furniture bank for people in need, the number of volunteers has dropped in half from the usual 5,000 a year, most of whom were older adults and corporate groups.
"We can't do it without our volunteers," said Diana Dalsin, the community relations manager. "There's no stopping. People need us."
The organization, which has only 35 employees, is still serving 80 households a week. While there are fewer volunteers, those who are showing up are doubling down. Tristen Lindemann, 59, of Minneapolis, used to help out once a week. This week, she's bumped that up to four days, walking the vast Bloomington warehouse with an iPad as she shopped for clients, showing them items via video to pick out remotely.
"It makes me feel like I'm doing some good," Lindemann said. "I hope I'm helping their life be a little easier and less stressful."
Churches and businesses have stepped up drive-through collections for cleaning supplies and other kits. Bridging has seen a dramatic spike in furniture donations as people confined to their homes ramp up spring cleaning.
But volunteers are still needed to sort items and load trucks. Dalsin said Bridging is bracing for an increase in Minnesotans in need of their services, especially once federal moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures end after being extended Wednesday by President Joe Biden.
In St. Paul, the International Institute of Minnesota anticipates an increase in the need for volunteers under the Biden administration as more refugees and immigrants move to Minnesota. The nonprofit, which helps 3,200 new Americans a year with English language classes and other services, paused in-person volunteering last March and hopes to resume it this year as more Minnesotans get vaccinated.
"We can't wait for our volunteers to come back," said Cori Ertz, the development director. "It's a great way for the community to demonstrate to new Americans they want them to succeed."
In the meantime, employees are taking over roles volunteers did, helping new Americans navigate the bus system or calling clients to remind them of appointments. The institute also plans to boost online volunteer opportunities such as mentoring or tutoring refugees and immigrants.
In Minneapolis, the nonprofit Avivo, which provides chemical and mental health services, career education and employment help, almost eliminated in-person volunteering in the pandemic, limiting it to a few outdoor events.
Instead, employees have done tasks volunteers used to do, repainting buildings, landscaping or coaching clients. Like Bridging, Avivo has encouraged people to help from home by assembling supply kits or donating toilet paper and other items on its wish list.
In Brooklyn Park and Maplewood, Second Harvest's biggest need is work that people can't do online or at home: sort and pack food to distribute to hunger relief programs. Without 300 volunteers a week there in November and December, the organization had employees step in. Volunteers are slowly returning, Greene said, but the usual groups from schools, corporations and churches aren't signing up, leaving Second Harvest with many openings as it responds to a record number of Minnesotans in need.
"Right now with hunger surging to those historic heights," Greene said, "we just need everyone coming out."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141