‘Renewed commitment’: Nonprofits, communities come together

The Aliveness Project
Brad Bryan and Dylan Boyer pose outside of The Aliveness Project center in Kingfield. “The HIV community has been through a pandemic before,” Boyer says. Submitted photo

Tea Rozman, founder of the Whittier-based nonprofit Green Card Voices, said she had to modify her organization essentially overnight in mid-March.

Her staff could no longer record video interviews sharing immigrant stories or travel around the country to promote their new book at national conferences. Confined to working from home, they adapted, launching a new podcast series on March 25 titled “#LoveYourAsianNeighbor.” The show responds to a spike in anti-Asian rhetoric and racism with a variety of stories from Asian Americans, immigrants and refugees.

Adele Della Torre, an East Isles dentist who founded Ready Set Smile, said the pandemic has reaffirmed the significance of her nonprofit’s work.

Summer is normally the time her team reaches out to educate students and parents in low-income communities about the importance of oral hygiene. They’re now trying to work virtually to connect with parents, give culturally sensitive guidance and send families necessities like floss and toothpaste. “I try to find the silver linings,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to what we once considered normal, but we will get back to services that are needed.”

Southwest Minneapolis nonprofits say the pandemic has brought both operational and fundraising challenges. For many, it has also highlighted the importance of their work and the support of their communities.

Financial worries

With spring normally ushering in fundraising galas for nonprofits, the adjustment to social distancing has hurt many traditional methods of raising money.

Large fundraising events are being postponed or hosted online. While some nonprofits have seen an increase in donations and been awarded grants and federal aid, many are worried about the long-term effect of COVID-19 on their organizations. Most still aren’t at the financial level they were at pre-pandemic and don’t know when they will get there again.

Carley Kammerer, an owner of Wildflyer Coffee, said COVID-19 has halted almost everything. The Southwest-based nonprofit employs homeless youth and teaches classes on personal and professional development. Normally stationed at local farmers markets or other pop-up events in a mobile coffee cart, Kammerer said she doesn’t know what the next month will bring.

Coffee bean sales on Wildflyer’s website have risen, but the revenue from wholesale coffee they normally sell at events like church gatherings and business meetings has essentially vanished.

Many donors have stepped up to support the five youth currently in her program, some- thing Kammerer said she is grateful for. But the pandemic has disrupted a milestone the company has been working toward for three years: a brick-and-mortar coffee shop.

“[In] the shop we would have been able to have a full cohort of young people,” she said. “Not being able to do our mission as well as we had been hoping to this year has been hard.”

Some organizations like the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge — which provides residential drug and alcohol treatment — have fared better. Their annual gala on May 1 was held online, and the nonprofit saw a record number of donations, bringing in over $1 million despite the event only lasting for about an hour. In addition to mask and hygiene supply donations, donors have been able to support their clients on an individual level, purchasing goods clients request through an Amazon wishlist.

“The generosity has just been over the top and so incredibly inspirational,” said Tim Walsh, the group’s vice president. “We had so many people step up.”

Apart but growing stronger

At the Aliveness Project, a community and wellness center in Kingfield for people living with HIV and AIDS, members have been working hard to adjust to physical distancing, spokesperson Dylan Boyer said.

Founded during the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1985, the Aliveness Project was designed to foster community through shared meals and shared space. Although case managers are still meeting members over the phone and staff are still packaging to-go meals for pickup, the loss of community gathering has been hard, he said.

Given the community’s immunocompromised status, staff have been especially careful to keep their distance from members. Several meeting groups, including one for those newly diagnosed with HIV and one for trans women, have stopped all together. Despite this, Boyer said, the community has come together in other ways. Some members have offered each other rides home so they won’t have to carry bags of groceries on the bus, and others have waited in their parking lot upwards of 20 minutes just to see a familiar face.

Many of those served by the nonprofit live below the poverty line and grapple with housing insecurity, Boyer said. Case managers have seen an influx of new patients and will often schedule video calls to check in and will drop off supplies to those who are most vulnerable.

“HIV doesn’t stop because COVID started,” Boyer said. “It’s finding these ways to make sure that we’re still putting the fight to end HIV at the forefront of our mind.”

Despite the challenges at hand, Boyer said, he was moved by the level of support the organization has received from members of the community. Donations of medical masks, toiletries and nonperishables have allowed them to give out more meals and supplies than ever before.

“The community is strong and the HIV community has been through a pandemic before,” Boyer said. “They really relied on each other to get through this. And I see that same spirit again.”

Fartun Weli said she also misses the ability to establish in-person connections with those she helps. The founder of Isuroon, a Lyndale-based nonprofit designed to empower women in the Somali community, Weli said she didn’t realize how much she would miss a gesture

as small as sharing a cup of tea with a client. Although her staff wears masks in the office, they often have to remind each other when greeting clients that they can’t hug just yet.

“We miss the loud voices. Sometimes we all come together and we chime in and it’s so friendly,” she said. “It’s like a family.”

Her organization connects Somali community members to culturally specific health care, leadership training, case management services and legal aid. Some of their main focuses during the pandemic have revolved around addressing food security, coaching students with distance learning and helping people navigate unemployment and welfare forms.

Weli said the desire for self-sufficiency sometimes prevents people from asking for help.
A lot of the families she sees don’t have the resources they need from the state, so having staff available on-call amid a pandemic establishes a sense of trust.

“COVID-19 really affirmed why we do the work we do,” Weli said. “The sense of urgency is multiplied because you have seen how vulnerable families are. … It’s renewed commitment [for me] and our team.”