Susan Russell Freeman got her start in social activism as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card.

“The truth is, I was grounded in college a lot,” Freeman said of her time at Milwaukee’s Marquette University. “The housemother got tired of hanging out with me. And she said I could get ungrounded if I went and volunteered at Father [James] Groppi’s church.”

Freeman found her calling in helping those on the margins of society, and left college for work as a community organizer in rural Florida. There, she said, “I was a better community organizer than Obama — and I stayed with it.”

Blunt and funny — two qualities that have served Freeman well as the leader of VEAP, Minnesota’s largest food shelf. Freeman is stepping down this week after 39 years as executive director, a time in which VEAP (Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People) grew from zero to 20 paid staff members and more than 1,700 volunteers. The agency, with an annual budget of more than $7 million, serves residents of Bloomington, Edina, Richfield and south Minneapolis.

“It’s been a good run,” Freeman said. “Now it’s time to move on.”

When Freeman does move on, the southwest metro will lose a fierce advocate for its neighbors in need. Freeman, 68, is known both as a visionary leader and as someone who’s not afraid to slug it out in the trenches.

“If Susan asks you for something, you might as well get it out of the way, because she ain’t going away,” said Gene Winstead, longtime mayor of Bloomington. “She’s got a tough job, and she does it well.”

Jean Berry, VEAP’s board president, said Freeman once came to a meeting with a black eye suffered in a fall from her horse.

“The horse was letting her know who was boss,” Berry said. “And I suppose that was the only place in the world where Susan wasn’t boss.”

A master connector

Although VEAP is best-known for its food programs, under Freeman’s leadership the organization expanded its offerings to include transportation, children and youth services, housing assistance, skills training and more. Just over a year ago, the agency moved into a new 50,000-square-foot headquarters on the east side of Bloomington that includes offices for Hennepin County Human Services and the health department shared by Bloomington, Edina and Richfield.

It’s quite a leap from the church basement where Freeman started out. The new facility has boosted VEAP’s ability to deal with all the problems faced by families or individuals. Typically, Freeman said, food insecurity is the tip of the iceberg — what’s called “the presenting problem.”

“When people are hurting, certainly the food and the financial support are important,” she said. “But it’s the humanness that can give them hope and let them know they’re in a community that cares. Humans need to connect — it’s the human spirit.”

Freeman herself is a renowned connector.

“She’s very quick-witted, knows how to work a room,” said Reed Nelson, a VEAP board member. “And when you’re dealing with potential donors, you need to be able to do that: remember names, remember where you met people.”

Freeman said it’s critical to involve everyone in VEAP’s work.

“I’ve always felt that our hallmark was that a diverse group of people were at the table,” she said. “The worst thing we can do is not invite people to the table because we don’t like them. If we have a common goal, it will all work out.

“My motto is, ‘I don’t know everything, but I know someone who does,’ ” she said. “It’s never bothered me to ask for things; I don’t take ‘no’ personally. I see people not as targets, but as connectors. If they can’t help you, they might know someone who can.”

Hope and humor

“VEAP is what it is today because of Susan Russell Freeman,” said Diann Kirby, Bloomington’s community services director. “She is a fierce and fearless advocate for those in need in this community.”

The fierce advocate has no immediate plans beyond a week at the beach. But she’s likely to be found back in some sort of executive role before long.

“I don’t use free time well,” Freeman said. “I need structure in my life.” The greatest reward for her over the years, she said, has been watching others discover the joy of helping.

“You see when a volunteer ‘gets it’ — when they realize they’re making a difference,” Freeman said. “Being around people who help people gives you a sense of hope and a certain sense of humor.

“You get outside of yourself,” she said. “At least, that’s what I used to tell my kids when I forced them to volunteer.”