ALEXANDRIA, MINN. – This central Minnesota city soon may face an interesting and rather unusual problem: What will happen when the volunteer helpers here outnumber the people who need the volunteer help?
In less than three weeks, thousands of local residents have signed up for “Helping Hands of Alexandria,” a group that formed when some friends got together on Facebook to chat about what they could do to help their neighbors during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Now, nursing home residents are sewing masks. A squadron of drivers makes grocery deliveries. Artists have painted inspirational scenes and messages on dozens of homes and businesses.
Meanwhile, donations are pouring in as volunteers deliver “blessings” — often in the form of flowers, baked goods and gift cards for local businesses — to medical workers, postal workers, day-care providers and first responders.
“You can just feel the love and the way the community is pulling together,” said Kelsi Timm, one of the founders. “The purpose of the group was to help people during COVID, but it’s turned out to be something much bigger.”
The pandemic could have been another severe blow for the city, which suffered the loss of four historic downtown buildings and their popular businesses during a massive fire in late February. Instead, the outbreak has served as a rallying point in a community of nearly 14,000 residents.
“Everyone in the community has donated, I swear,” said Nattiel Dammer, another founder of the group, which now counts more than 3,500 members. “I swear, we’ll deliver $110 worth of groceries and a $110 check will come in. We believe God sees us.”
Helping Hands got its start in mid-March, when Timm convened a Facebook chat with some friends from her Bible study group.
“I said, ‘Hey, girls, will you help me?’ ” Timm recalled. “I created the group and prayed about it. God gave me the name Helping Hands.
“Within 24 hours we had 800 people in the group. It grew crazy fast.”
Timm hosts a daily radio program on PraiseLive, a Christian radio station based in nearby Osakis, and handles the station’s marketing and promotion. Dammer manages the local Aldi grocery store. The two have continued to work at their full-time jobs while wrangling the volunteers and scheduling for Helping Hands, with Timm often fielding Helping Hands calls during songs on her show.
On Thursday, a crew pulled up at the CentraCare kidney dialysis center with a “blessing” for the nursing staff. Volunteer Sarah Busche, recipient of two kidney transplants, has been coming to the center for thrice-weekly dialysis sessions for more than six years.
They brought flowers, gift cards for the Depot Express restaurant and Busche’s homemade lemon bars, a tasty favorite among many here.
“I knew I couldn’t show up without lemon bars,” she said with a smile.
Three staff members came out, masks on, to receive the gifts. But the masks couldn’t conceal the tears in their eyes.
“I can’t even talk about it without crying,” said nurse Keri Wimmer. “There’s so much stress right now, trying to protect your patients and your family.”
And the nurses had a surprise in return for the Helping Hands group: a $100 donation from the CentraCare dialysis staff, earmarked for blessings to their cleaning crew.
Meanwhile, Calvary Lutheran Church has become the center of mask-making. The church lobby is a drop-off and pickup point for cloth, elastic and other mask-making supplies. Joni Jacobson, a teacher at Alexandria Community and Technical College, is the “masketeer,” coordinating the efforts of hundreds of volunteer sewers.
Jacobson said the group has distributed more than 6,000 masks and has as many more ready to go out soon.
“It’s scary, but we all come together, and it’s just so special,” said Terri Bursch, who stopped by the church to pick up supplies. “On the other side of this, we will be better people.”
It’s a day Timm is longing to see, she said: “I’m so excited to meet everybody when this is over and give them hugs and tell them what a great job they’ve done.”
John Reinan • 612-673-7402