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Kathy_Willis_Food_Shelf.jpg.  Food_Shelf.jpg

Kathy Wills (left) and Wendy Thomas (right) support the work of Family Pathways to increase access to the organization’s food programs.

Changing for the Better

A special grant round is helping regional nonprofits use lessons learned from the pandemic to transform the ways they deliver services. 

By Gene Rebeck | Photography by John Linn and Michael Schoenecker

Call her Alison. Last year, she wrote a letter to New Pathways, a Cambridge-based nonprofit that provides support to Central Minnesota families experiencing homelessness. In her letter, Alison shared a story of the last two decades and the difficulties she and her family faced without a place to call home.

New Pathways and its Path to Home shelter program helped Alison and her family resolve their housing crisis. Alison expressed gratitude to New Pathways for extending the help she and her family “so desperately” needed. “Not only did [New Pathways and its volunteers] extend a hand up, they guided me back on path to self-sufficiency and success.”

Like many nonprofits, New Pathways was hit hard by the pandemic. But thanks to a grant from the Initiative Foundation and its $1 million-plus Transformative Funding for Nonprofits program, New Pathways is one of 15 Central Minnesota organizations that can reinvent the way it delivers services to help people like Alison while adapting to better address changes in client and community needs.

New Pathways’ flagship Path to Home program has worked with area churches to provide overnight shelter to homeless families. When the pandemic hit in 2020 and churches locked down, the organization pivoted and put families in local hotels. But funding was tight. “Every week I had to evaluate, ‘Will we have to shut down?’” recalled Mary Westlund, New Pathways executive director.

A state grant helped New Pathways maintain its hotel program through September. It then reverted to its church-based model.

The pandemic highlighted vulnerabilities in New Pathways’ program. Similar programs nationwide have been forced to close; many haven’t reopened. Westlund and her colleagues have often discussed transitioning Path to Home from the churches to a site that it would operate. “But we’ve never had the support around us to do the proper planning and figure out if it’s viable,” she said.

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Joan and Rodger Bostrom volunteer with Family Pathways to make deliveries to those who face food insecurity. 

Making Change With Big Money
The Transformative Funding program exists because of COVID-19 and the Otto Bremer Trust, which last year awarded the Initiative Foundation $2 million to help nonprofits and small businesses hit by the pandemic. The Foundation split the award between the two sectors.

“This is by far the largest grant program for nonprofits that we have had in recent memory, if not the largest ever,” said Zach Tabatt, Initiative Foundation nonprofit development program officer. A typical Initiative Foundation grant is around $5,000, with some ranging up to $10,000. “This was our rare opportunity to offer much more significant funding,” Tabatt added. The Transformative Funding checks sent out this summer range from $50,000 to $100,000.

When the Otto Bremer Trust funds became available, the Initiative Foundation invited regional nonprofits to request consideration for grants. More than 70 organizations replied. The Foundation then invited 25 nonprofits to officially apply. It also did something it had never done before: It paid for consultants to help eligible nonprofits develop and refine their proposals to maximize the potential for positive impact. “We let the organizations tell us what was most important for them,” Tabatt said. “Our only guideline was that we were looking for organizations to transform themselves for the future—to really build added strength and impact.”

Cambridge-based Family Pathways, which operates separately from New Pathways, serves about 20,000 people annually. About 85 percent of its work is food access, a mission it has fulfilled primarily through its nine Central Minnesota food shelves. “We learned so much during COVID-19 about some of the barriers people face to using our food shelves,” said Sonia Palmer, Family Pathways’ director of advancement. “There were so many people falling through the cracks because they weren’t able to make it to a food shelf.”

When lockdowns kept seniors away, Family Pathways launched twice-a-month curbside and doorstep deliveries. It also introduced “pop-up” mass distribution locations, where people drive up to receive food. When the nonprofit learned about the Transformative Funding program, they knew they could use the funds to transform their program to be more accessible.

“We know there are so many people in outlying areas that we’re not reaching,” said Kathy Wills, director of food access and equity with Family Pathways. “We want to open up doorstep delivery to all of our communities, people of any age, whose situation prevents them from coming [to the food shelves].”

This past June, Family Pathways ordered a cargo van that can accommodate three to four pallets of food. While the organization is waiting for the van to arrive, it has been renting vehicles and developing other workarounds.

Though Family Pathways’ food shelves continue to be widely used, the Transformative Funding program is allowing the nonprofit to deliver on its food mission in ways that work best for the people it serves. “COVID-19 really showed us: There’s a whole new world out there to get people food,” Wills said. “And we have to adjust to it.”

Finding Home
The idea behind St. Cloud-based Homeless Helping Homeless, founded four years ago, is that the homeless can do a lot for themselves, said executive director Harold Fleegel. They just need the resources and the contacts. The organization’s board chair is formerly homeless, as are some of its officers.

When the pandemic hit, Homeless Helping Homeless established a program that housed people in area hotels. When that ended during fall 2020, many homeless shifted to living in an encampment, which was a disaster, Fleegel said. The city of St. Cloud proposed that Homeless Helping Homeless manage a facility the city would provide. Lincoln Center, which opened in November 2020, is a low-barrier shelter and oftentimes a last resort for many homeless people. It originally consisted of one large open room that could accommodate 19 people. The city later provided office dividers so residents would have their own space.

However, the doorless dividers lacked privacy and security. Homeless Helping Homeless is using its Transformative Funding grant to construct individual locked rooms for residents. Once these modules are in place, Lincoln Center will be able to increase capacity to 25.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this remodel without the Initiative Foundation,” Fleegel said. “Or we would have had to take a lot longer time to get it going because we would have had to raise the money piecemeal. We want to get this done before winter because we don’t want anybody outside freezing to death.”

New Pathways is also looking to reinvent its shelter program. It’s using its Transformative Funding grant to explore and plan on transitioning the shelter model from a church-rotation style to a site-based model, executive director Westlund said. “I don’t know what that’s going to look like—that’s part of the process. But it would provide sustainability and stability to our program and to our clients.”

New Pathways operates the only family shelter program in Isanti, Chisago, Kanabec and Mille Lacs counties. “If we’re not here, there would be a huge gap,” Westlund noted. By filling that gap, New Pathways has helped many people transform their lives. Just ask Alison.

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HOMELESS HELPING HOMELESS: Shelter operators Mary and Harold Fleegel are using the Transformative Funding for Nonprofits grant to enhance security and dignity for shelter residents.


Transformative Funding for Nonprofits Grant Recipients

Anishinabe Legal Services, Inc.—Create Housing Education, Litigation Unit to Combat Homelessness
Grant award: $100,000

Tribal nation served: Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Anishinabe Legal Services will use its funding to address homelessness in the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe area through the creation of a housing education and litigation unit. The effort is expected to improve the lives of tenants by providing legal representation and reducing dangerous housing conditions while also delivering landlord-tenant education about the eviction process. 

Big Lake Community Food Shelf, Inc.—Building Transformation, Service Expansion
Grant award: $55,000
County served: Sherburne The Big Lake Community Food Shelf will use its grant to meet an anticipated 25 percent jump in clients by making the current food shelf space more efficient, safe and inviting. The transformation will increase space for volunteers and create a more pleasant shopping experience for clients. A walk-in freezer and cooler will also be added along with increased storage shelf space.

Boys & Girls Club of the Leech Lake Area—Youth in Business
Grant award: $60,000
Tribal nation served: Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe The Boys and Girls Club of the Leech Lake Area will use its grant to support the Leech Lake Youth in Business project. The long-term poverty-reduction initiative will include a business incubator, business education from local institutions, and opportunities for youth to connect with local small businesses. The Boys and Girls Club hopes to kick off the project by testing business ideas at powwow events.

Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization—Build Capacity to Enhance Effectiveness and Service Delivery
Grant award: $50,000
County served: Stearns The Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization grant will support hiring a deputy chief executive officer with a goal of delivering services and programs to more people within the communities it serves. Staff members hope to take the organization to the next level through increased collaboration among current and prospective partners.

Employment Enterprises, Inc., and Confidence Learning Center—Building Confidence and Employment Skills Together
Grant award: $75,000*
Counties served: Crow Wing and Morrison Employment Enterprises, Inc., and Confidence Learning Center will partner to serve adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities through a hands-on educational program to promote job skills. The program will also aim to keep individuals engaged for longer periods of time to better equip them for the workforce. Employment Enterprises, Inc., provides opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness. Confidence Learning Center provides recreation opportunities to those with developmental and cognitive disabilities.

*This surprise grant was awarded during Sourcewell’s 2022 Nonprofit Impact Funding Review Day on Wednesday, June 8, in Staples.

Family Pathways—Access to Healthy Foods in Rural Communities
Grant award: $55,000
Tribal nation/counties served: Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe/Chisago, Pine, Isanti, Kanabec and Mille Lacs counties This grant will help Family Pathways better serve clients in Mille Lacs County and in the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s sovereign tribal area by transitioning from a site-based food shelf model to a mobile food pantry, pop-up food markets and doorstep delivery. Some of the grant will be used to purchase a food-delivery van. Staff also plan to work with local colleges to affect food insecurity among students.

Hands of Hope Resource Center—Bilingual Advocacy Services
Grant award: $75,000
County served: Todd Hands of Hope Resource Center will use its grant to hire a bilingual advocate in Long Prairie to build trust and expand community resources. The advocate will respond to hospitals and communicate with law enforcement to support crime and abuse victims. The advocate also will provide education and other outreach in the Long Prairie area. Staff expect to serve at least 50 additional clients.

Higher Works Collaborative—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Learning Center
Grant award: $62,000
County served: Stearns Higher Works Collaborative will use its grant to open the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Learning Center, a space where clients can attend workshops and trainings, engage in tutoring services, access a diverse and culturally competent library, and seek a safe and comfortable place. The facility will have multiple rooms named after African American historical figures. Staff also hope to hire a coordinator and purchase a passenger vehicle to transport visitors.

Homeless Helping Homeless—Lincoln Center Remodeling and Expansion
Grant award: $100,000

County served: Benton, Stearns Homeless Helping Homeless will use its grant to remodel the Lincoln Center Shelter, a low-barrier homeless shelter on southeast Lincoln Avenue in St. Cloud. The remodel will add private, locked areas where individual clients can sleep and store belongings. Current sleeping space will be converted to a dining and lounge area.

Lakes & Pines Community Action Council, Inc.—Advocate-Client Coaching Model
Grant award: $100,000
Counties served: Aitkin, Carlton, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Pine counties The funds will be used to hire a consultant and to train advocates so they can better support clients through their transition from poverty to prosperity. Overall, staff members want to maximize services and develop a unified intake system to increase efficiency and instill client trust.

Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity—Leech Lake Tribal Workforce Housing
Grant award: $50,000*

Tribal nation served: Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity will use its grant as part of a $1.65 million project to build 15 homes on Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe sovereign tribal land. These homes could support up to 90 people—moving them to a safe and affordable place to live, which typically results in better health and educational outcomes. Additional funds for this project will come from the American Recovery Plan Act and the Blandin Foundation.

*This grant includes $28,000 from Otto Bremer Trust and $22,000 from The Funders Network and its Philanthropic Preparedness, Resiliency and Emergency Partnership.

New Pathways, Inc.—Site-based Shelter Planning Project
Grant award: $60,000

County served: Isanti New Pathways will use its grant to underwrite the first of two phases to establish a permanent shelter for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. To date, New Pathways has relied on faith community partnerships to house those in need of shelter. The project will focus on selecting a site and entering into a purchase agreement; developing a concept design to be used for cost estimates and to assess fundraising needs; raising funds and applying for grants.

North Star Family Advocacy Center—Pine County Engagement of Services
Grant award: $45,000

County served: Pine North Star Family Advocacy Center will use its grant to expand to Pine County where it can serve even more children and vulnerable adult victims of sexual and physical abuse. The center delivers responsive, comprehensive assistance to clients with a focus on a whole family approach to care.

Oasis Central Minnesota—Housing Support/Housing Stabilization Service Enrollment
Grant award: $60,000

County served: Morrison Oasis Central Minnesota will use its grant to enroll in two state programs: Housing with Support and Housing Stabilization Services. The enrollment will generate revenue streams to support Oasis Central Minnesota’s work to provide emergency shelter and case management. Program enrollment will generate additional revenue to hire more support staff, which ultimately will lead to more resources for those facing homelessness and housing insecurity.

Salem Lutheran Church—Improved Donation Storage and Processing
Grant award: $75,000

County served: Crow Wing The grant to Salem Lutheran Church will partially fund remodeling at Salem WEST, which will lead to more productive processing of donations, increased space for clients to shop, and greater efficiencies for volunteers. The organization will explore relocating The Mustard Seed, a thrift store that partially funds its work, to the current donation and processing facility. The transition, if deemed viable, will enable the expansion of the store footprint and increased sales.

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