Grants awarded to victims of bridge collapse

The Minnesota Helps Bridge Disaster Fund awarded its first round of grants Monday to six organizations that are helping survivors, families and workers in the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse.

United Way 211 has individually called about one-third of the 187 people who were on the bridge to find out what their short- and long-term needs are, said director Caty Jirik.

“Most people are thankful to be called,” Jirik said. “It’s a positive piece [of the recovery efforts].”

United Way will continue to contact people and will prepare a report for Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office.

United Way, The Minneapolis Foundation, Minnesota Community Foundation and The Saint Paul Foundation have teamed up to organize and give out the money that was donated by a variety of organizations and individuals in the aftermath of the bridge collapse. So far, eight proposals have come in, and they have granted six. The fund is “not overwhelmed with applications,” Jirik said.

The first round of grants, ranging in size from $4,000 to more than $163,000, accounts for less than one-third of the total fund. Jirik said the focus now is on contacting survivors and families and figuring out what type of help they need. United Way is in a unique position in that it is one of the organizations giving money to the fund, as well as one of the organizations taking part in deciding where that money will go.

“We want to be good stewards of that money,” Jirik said.

So far the fund has been focused on giving money to organizations helping with mental health counseling and creating support groups, as well as financial stresses like insurance, legal services, health care, legal advice, and getting people to work every day.

“Everyone on that bridge lost their car,” Jirik said.

The grants will help individuals and organizations transition toward a second phase of help that alters the focus from immediate needs to more long-term issues.

“The mental health issues are not small,” Jirik said.

In addition to bridge survivors and families, the money helps support groups and services for emergency personnel and citizens who pitched in with rescue efforts.  

The Victim Intervention Project Institute (V.I.P.I.) survivor resources support group is a place for survivors, families of the deceased and citizens who helped out in the aftermath.

“Right now, people are just kind of coming together, comparing notes,” Margaret McAbee, VIPI program director says.

McAbee said it is important to meet others who have gone through similar tragedies, helping people normalize their experiences and reactions to begin the healing process.

“We meet them where they are on any given night,” McAbee says.  “Each week the conversation gets a little deeper.”

The United Cambodian Association of Minnesota (UCAM), which received more than $15,000 in grant money from the bridge fund, is helping one family who lost their mother, a refugee from the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and her son.

“Two million people died in the past,” Yorn Yan, executive director of UCAM said, referring to the hard labor and executions under the Cambodian government in the 1970s. “(They) thought they are safe and secure (here), but it’s not.”

The association is helping the family through counseling and legal services as well as the traditional 100-day Cambodian funeral ceremonies.
“Before 100 days, the spirit just flies around,” Yan said.  “(The celebration) makes sure that the spirit lives in peace.”