ST. PAUL — It was back in May that Dennis Beckerleg came up with what he later called a "crazy, stupid idea."
American Legion Post 21 in Moorhead, Minn., would hold a two-week canned food drive to support the local food pantry. And for every can it collected, Beckerleg wanted the Legion to donate a dollar.
By the time the drive was over, the veteran's group had amassed several hundred dollars in cans and cash for the food pantry, some of which people donated without even being asked.
"I had everything from sardines to SpaghettiOs in canned goods," Beckerleg said in a recent interview.
With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in October, the Legion organized a second drive that raised nearly $1,400. Now a third is being planned for after the winter holidays, Beckerleg said.
Asked if he is shooting to out-raise the Legion's past two drives with its next one, Beckerleg said "I'm going to try."
Large or small, charitable groups in Minnesota have been called upon as never before to support the hungry, ailing and low-earning during the coronavirus pandemic. And despite being the cause of widespread income loss, they say, the pandemic has also reinvigorated donors who have the means to support them to do so.
Many of the people who sought help from charitable organizations this year did so for the first time, industry professionals said.
More people are visiting food shelves and pantries partnered with Second Harvest Heartland, according to Chief Development Officer Megan Muske, suggesting that a growing number of Minnesotans are facing hunger. The organization, which works with pantries in several dozen Minnesota counties, has upped the amount of food it distributes as a result.
"We’re seeing a hunger crisis unlike the none we’ve had since the Great Depression," Muske said.
Newcomers sought out counseling services offered by the Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota because of the pandemic as well, according to executive director Shanna Harris. And inquiries came from the young and old alike.
Some school-age children were having a difficult time adapting to remote learning, Harris said. Their parents, meanwhile, had to learn how to work from home and act as proctors at the same time.
"They are around their family 24/7 now, and (being) cooped up together is not always the most ideal," Harris said in a recent interview.
For the elderly, who are at a particular risk of dying from COVID-19, the pandemic has had the opposite effect. It has been painfully isolating for many older Minnesotans, not to visit with family members for fear of spreading the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to Harris.
In some ways, the pandemic has brought about changes at charitable organizations themselves. Second Harvest on several occasions organized pop-up, drive-through grocery distribution sites to allow for social distancing, for example.
In 2021, Harris said, the Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota plans to keep its warming shelters in Rochester and Winona open year-round instead of opening them only for limited periods of time.
American Legion officers are using Zoom and other video calling software to meet remotely, according to Teresa Ash, a difficult adjustment for some older and less technologically savvy members to make. But Ash, vice commander of the 5th and 6th districts of the Legion in Minnesota, said that such technology has also made it much easier for Legion members from across the state to collaborate on charitable efforts.
As painful as the pandemic has been, she said, "it really has brought the organization together as a whole."
For all the economic disruption the coronavirus has caused, Minnesota charities still seem to be maintaining a steady flow of donations. Some said that their donor bases have grown or are donating more generously in light of the hardship the pandemic has caused.
"We are actually doing better than normal, and I hate to say that," Harris said. "But the money we are bringing in is needed to sustain our programs that we are offering during this time."
Contact Matthew Guerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-321-4314