Norb Sticha, a retired electrician from New Prague, spent one morning last week making sandwiches with fellow volunteers at the central kitchen and warehouse of Catholic Charities near downtown St. Paul.
Sticha, who is 66, started cooking one meal a month at the kitchen 29 years ago. Now, he also cooks weekly meals at Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day campus downtown.
“We are called to serve, and my call is to participate in preparing food,” Sticha said.
In the five weeks since the Minnesota economy was virtually shut down by the need to fight the coronavirus, Catholic Charities and other service providers have been inundated by people who need help.
The closing of restaurants, factories and other businesses hit the livelihoods of working-class folks in greater numbers than others.
Leaders of Catholic Charities, Twin Cities YMCA and the Food Group, the nonprofit wholesaler that supplies 200-plus Minnesota food shelves, said they are experiencing record demand.
Catholic Charities’ expenses are rising at an unprecedented rate of $1 million-plus monthly. The charity spent $132,000 in cash on food last month, up from $35,000 in February, Pamela Aho, procurement manager for Catholic Charities, said.
Sophia Lenarz-Coy, executive director of the Food Group, said, food shelves and meal programs in the Twin Cities were already operating at capacity before the virus hit and created an instant recession. “With so many new folks out of work … this will cause a dramatic strain on the system,” she said.
Individual and institutional donors are responding in both spontaneous and coordinated ways.
The Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation of Minneapolis in March accelerated its $8 million in second-quarter giving and then doubled down with an additional $8 million.
The extra funds include $5 million to assist thousands of laid-off workers of Best Buy Co., which Schulze founded in the 1960s.
Schulze Foundation gave Catholic Charities an emergency grant of $150,000 and it gave the YMCA, the largest provider of day care in the Twin Cities, $165,000.
The YMCA has expanded its day-care reach for families of essential workers and others.
It has retained some of its fitness workers to assist with innovative partnerships. For example, the Y is working with Loaves & Fishes and UnitedHealth Group to turn its employee-dining facilities to kitchens serving the expanded demand for free meals, many handed out from YMCA sites.
UnitedHealth put $2 million into the effort.
“As soon as we closed our doors in March, we shut off [a lot of] of our revenue,” said Glen Gunderson, chief executive of YMCA in the Twin Cities. He projects up to a $25 million deficit in the Y’s 2020 budget of $172 million this year.
However, Gunderson is buoyed by philanthropy and expanded partnerships that have allowed individual YMCAs to redeploy some workers from meal distribution to checking on senior citizens. With fitness centers closed, many of the Y’s regulars can’t keep up swim or fitness activities, plus the socialization that is important to mental health.
“Our Youth Intervention Services team is partnering with hotels and YMCA families to find stable housing [for homeless teenagers], who can’t go to shelters during this time, so they have a stable place to live,” Gunderson said. “We don’t want them couch surfing.
“I think we’ll see an uptick in philanthropy this year. We’re encouraged by the generosity. We feel we’re trusted and working with partners, collaboratively, on what the community tells us is needed.”
Eric Jolly, chief executive of the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation, is leading a COVID-19 collaboration through the Minnesota Council of Foundations that is en route to $16 million in a newly created Minnesota Disaster Recovery Fund.
“My heart has been warmed,” Jolly said. “I’m charged every day, including by single acts of kindness of volunteers calling seniors, serving a meal and doing something meaningful.”
The new fund this month disbursed $2.1 million in 14 grants to grassroots nonprofits throughout Minnesota that support vulnerable communities, tribal members, domestic-violence survivors, food shelves, the disabled and undocumented workers.
One recipient, Think Small, which supports small child-care providers, received $200,000 to support 200 day cares that serve health care and other essential workers. “This grant is … literally keeping child-care businesses open in the metro area,” said Chief Executive Barbara Yates.
Jolly is fond of one heartening accommodation in his own downtown St. Paul.
The Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa, owner of the Intercontinental Hotel, gladly accepted 60 elderly residents of the nearby Dorothy Day Higher Ground residence.
The elderly are enjoying the accommodations at a fraction of retail rate with funding from Ramsey County. And the hotel was able to continue employing some workers who otherwise would be furloughed.
“We are early in bringing together different communities to help put Minnesota on the track to recovery,” Jolly said.
Back at the Catholic Charities kitchen, Sticha, one of the longest-serving volunteers, has never seen a time like this.
“We have been delightfully credited with making good enchiladas on Saturdays,” he said. “We are prepared to serve up to 300 diners.”
The agency keeps 1500 people housed nightly in its shelters and is now providing several thousand others with meals and groceries.
“The satisfaction I get is the smile from a guest, a diner, or simply talking to another volunteer,” Sticha said. “This makes me feel more complete.”