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'Bulldogs Got Talent': UMD honors students throw talent show to help families in need

"Most kids can see Lake Superior from their window but have never been to Lake Superior," UMD student Elizabeth Breitbach said.

UMD students Elizabeth Breitbach and Isaac Conrad
University of Minnesota Duluth students Elizabeth Breitbach, right, and Isaac Conrad hold up a 2015 article about the University Honors Student Association's partnership with Steve O'Neil Apartments. They said their "Bulldogs Got Talent" show aimed to raise some money for a shuttle.
Abigael Keely Smith / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The University of Minnesota Duluth's Honors Student Association threw a talent show, "Bulldogs Got Talent," in the Weber Music Hall on Thursday.

But behind the glitz and glam, UMD honors students Elizabeth Breitbach and Isaac Conrad, hope to be the change for families residing in the Steve O'Neil Apartments.

The organization is raising money for a transportation shuttle for families living in the Central Hillside building for people who've experienced homelessness. Honors students had spread the word before Thanksgiving break, asking for donations. To date, they have raised $8,000.

"With what I've seen working in the Central Hillside of Duluth, transportation is always the biggest issue in regards to any problem," Breitbach said. "Most of these people don't have cars. So wherever they need to go, they need to walk or take public transportation, which is hard when you have three kids with one in a stroller."

The group aims to raise at least $2,000 more to buy the shuttle. "Bulldogs Got Talent," is a way to share the mission with community members and collect more donations.

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"Duluth has a lot of opportunities and places for kids to explore," Conrad said. "But a lot of kids at (Steve O'Neil) haven't gotten that opportunity."

The Steve O'Neil Apartments were built in 2015 as permanent housing for families facing homelessness. The building also includes CHUM's six-unit Emergency Family Shelter. It provides various programs for families such as an after-school program, family coaching, a grow-up group, an infant and toddler program and a garden program.

UMD's Honor Program has been involved since its opening, providing after-school tutoring.

After attending after-school programs, Breitbach soon saw a need for stability, healthier connections and greater access to higher education. Students played games, tutored and connected with families and children regularly.

Shortly after Breitbach's experience, the pandemic struck.

"COVID made all the situations in that environment so much worse just because of the domestic abuse, the substance abuse problems just escalated especially when you're just stuck in this isolation," Breitbach said.

In-person sessions were canceled, posing a challenge for honors students to remain connected while staying distant. "We got to put our own twists and creativity into connection with kids virtually, so we set up a virtual tutoring program," Breitbach said.

The UMD students created YouTube videos, dropped off packets for kids to use while watching the videos, and had "Sunday Fun-Day," where students introduced creative learning experiences like using slime to explain chemistry. Soon, virtual learning experiences spewed the idea for a virtual talent show — private for honors students and the families.

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Students dropped off pizzas to families so they could enjoy a meal while watching the talent show. Soon, children and their mothers took over Zoom with a multitude of performances, an experience UMD students brought to life with their in-person "Bulldogs Got Talent" show.

"There's a lot of students and people in the UMD community that believe in the power of community, and just taking care of our neighbors. So this is really about spreading that message. Seeing a positive response of people wanting to give, and people caring is heartwarming. It makes you believe in what you're doing," Conrad said.

The organization is accepting donations through Venmo or check. Venmo payments can be found at @SONAShuttle; checks can be made out to the University Honors Student Association and mailed to 21 EduE 412 Library Drive, Duluth, MN.

"Bulldogs Got Talent" was free and open to the public. Attendees voted for their favorite performance with $1. Funds obtained from the event will be put directly toward the shuttle.

Abigael Smith graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a double major in journalism and English and a minor in Digital Writing, Literature, and Design.
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Bygones is researched and written by David Ouse, retired reference librarian from the Duluth Public Library. He can be contacted at djouse49@gmail.com.