See more of the story

Just off Highway 3 in Northfield, a stone's throw from two prestigious private liberal arts colleges, roughly 200 mobile homes shelter scores of primarily Latino residents.

About 14 miles farther south, in the county seat of Faribault, another 400 or so mobile homes house even more people.

But when winter's howling winds and freezing temperatures prevail, these aging trailers — better suited to southern climates — aren't the warmest or safest housing.

This past winter, though, things looked brighter. A collaboration among local nonprofits, governmental agencies, a church — even college students — made sure that at least a few dozen households weathered winter warmly.

Together, they provided climate education and outreach, heat tape for water lines, and volunteer labor and cash donations.

"This is our number one local impact mission: To serve the mobile home communities of Rice County alongside other nonprofits," said Dean Swenson, lead pastor at the Northfield campus of Hosanna Church.

"We're in it for the long haul even though we know it will take time to do all that is needed. But there's great joy and satisfaction in knowing you loved a neighbor. It's one action, one family, one trailer at a time."

Mitigating fire hazards

Back in November of 2020, concerns grew about the safety of mobile homes in the area.

"The underbelly of mobile homes is [loose] insulation, which can catch on fire quickly," said Jen Barrientos, director of Growing Up Healthy, a program aimed at improving life for low-income, immigrant and refugee communities in Rice County.

Because the skirting around these dwellings is typically not insulated, bare water lines beneath them readily freeze during Minnesota's harshest months.

Fire hazards are exacerbated when residents attempt do-it-yourself solutions like operating space heaters for long periods in confined places, or using torches to try to thaw out pipes. To top it off, a precious resource runs down drains, unused.

"Mobile home parks are historically among the top water consumers in town because of faucets left running," said Barrientos, referring to one way residents try to prevent frozen pipes.

"And I've also seen people put space heaters under their sinks, so it's a combination of energy wastefulness and real fire hazards."

These concerns grabbed the attention of Sandy Malecha, senior director of the Northfield-based Healthy Community Initiative (HCI). The umbrella organization serves several programs in Rice County, including Growing Up Healthy.

Along with Barrientos, Malecha has seen the cascade of troubles resulting from a seemingly small problem like naked water pipes — problems that extend far beyond warmth.

"When kids are absent from school because they get sick more frequently due to cold homes from broken furnaces, or windows with holes in them, that affects their learning," said Barrientos. "Frozen water pipes affect families in numerous ways; without water, you can't take showers, wash dishes or hands, cook easily or flush toilets."

Improving home energy efficiency

A few years ago, Malecha and others used their connections with Xcel Energy to encourage visits by the utility's Home Energy Squad, which would offer "awesome opportunities for tips and support to improve home energy efficiency," said Malecha.

But few low-income households were using the resource, she said.

Language barriers in neighborhoods that skewed heavily Latino and Somali were one problem; a general distrust of the process also prevailed, as did worries from some residents about the risk of deportation.

In November 2020, with funds from Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTS) and the city of Northfield, HCI distributed 450 weatherization kits to Rice County mobile home residents — a great start, but still not a permanent solution for the repeated problem of frozen pipes.

Digging in the dirt It was time for a direct, hands-on approach.

With the guidance of a step-by-step training video produced by Faribault Fire Chief Dustin Dienst, an electrician by trade, small teams of volunteers spent Saturdays in August, September and October of 2021 tackling the problem directly.

It's a down-and-dirty job, requiring a volunteer to crawl beneath a trailer, strip off any old heat tape, wrap 25 to 40 feet of piping with just the right amount of pressure and finally insulate the pipes with sliced foam pool noodles — all under the illumination of a phone or flashlight. It takes at least two hours to tape pipes at each location.

Proof that the process works lies in testimonials like that of one Viking Terrace family. After a trip out of town for a few winter days when daily highs hovered below zero, they worried about coming home to frozen pipes. But they were delighted to find their pipes, wrapped months earlier by volunteers, were intact and their water supply remained fully operational.

"We are super grateful for everyone who helped," said homeowner Victor Moran.

Witnessing the "before" and "after" also bolstered volunteers, despite the risks involved: Swenson required six stitches to close a finger wound he incurred while cutting a length of heat tape.

But helping a family that had lived for two years without water, Swenson said, was motivating.

"People have no idea who their neighbors are, and a lot of our effort is to make people aware, to invite others to partner with us in recognizing that these are our brothers and sisters," said Swenson.

"Heat tape may be the tip of the iceberg," Swenson said. "But little by little, we're increasing our efforts to meet those needs."

Indeed, hundreds more Rice County mobile homes are still in need of upgraded heat tape, among other pressing repair needs. Also underway is an effort to educate the broader community about climate change and how individual energy efficiency improvements can help.

Two college students — Clarissa Guzman, a Carleton College senior from Sunnyvale, Calif., and Angie Orrego, a St. Olaf College sophomore whose family lives in one of Northfield's trailer parks — are interning this spring at Growing Up Healthy, tasked with reaching the area's Spanish-speakers.

"We're trying to create a bridge between the Latino community and the city, to get them the resources they want and need related to climate change initiatives," said Guzman, who interpreted during a few of the heat tape missions last fall.

Observed Orrego, "The harsher conditions these communities face are not usually brought into conversations when you're talking about Northfield, but I'm really excited about helping build trust."

Malecha stresses there are many partners involved in the improvement efforts, which started with a little bit of caulk and a few yards of heat tape but now add up to better community relations and more comfortable living spaces for a growing number of families.

Said Malecha: "We just want safer homes for kids to grow up in, regardless of their families' backgrounds or status."

Jane Turpin Moore is a Northfield-based writer and frequent contributor to Inspired.