CHISHOLM — The United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN) offers a variety of programs and services available to people living or working in its service area, which includes the Iron Range and Koochiching County.
The mining industry and its employees play a major role, both funding and providing volunteer manpower behind these vital programs and services, according to UWNEMN Executive Director Erin Shea.
“In a typical year, close to half of our funding comes from the mining industry, mining vendors, and mining employees,” Shea said. “In general, about 70 percent of all contributions come from individuals in all workplaces,” Shea said.
“A lot of people wouldn’t naturally think of nonprofits when talking about our region’s mining industry, but the reality is mining touches everything here,” Shea added in a follow-up email. “When the industry is doing well, employees are more likely to support organizations like ours — which means we are able to do more to help those who aren’t doing so well. When the industry is struggling, we hold our breath along with everyone else, because we know the broad scope of what’s at stake for our communities.”
Shea said UWNEMN is keenly aware of the impact mining has on its work, and is grateful for the support of the mining companies, mining vendors of all sizes, and the thousands of employees working in the mining industry.
“These men and women shape everything we do in one way or another,” She said. “They support us with their donations, their time, and their input. Some of our programs wouldn’t even exist without the support of mining industry folks — not just because of their financial contributions and volunteerism, but because some of our programs started after they told us about a need they saw in the community.”
The UWNEMN Board of Directors has 17 members that are employed in mining, a mining vendor, or belong to the Steelworkers Union.
Local mines and mining vendors also set up packing sessions for the backpack program throughout the year.
A group called the Women of Steel with members from the United Steelworkers Union including women in the mining industry and healthcare workers regularly participates in packing sessions for the UWNEMN Buddy Backpack program.
“Buddy Backpacks provides a backpack filled with nutritious, nonperishable, child-friendly food items to children who are at-risk of going hungry over the weekends due to various reasons,” as described on the UWNEMN website.
Tanya Gustafson, Chair of Women of Steel, and union vice president at the U.S. Steel Keetac plant in Keewatin, shared her thoughts on the program.
“One of the really cool things is when we go there, they (UWNEMN staff) explain what it’s for,” she said. “Some kids go home and don’t have a meal at home all weekend long —they get a backpack on Friday, so it’s nutrition for every meal.”
Gustafson said that she finds it sad there are children in our area in that situation, adding that at least when school is in session they can receive breakfast and a hot meal at lunch.
Another group that provides valuable volunteer services to UWNEMN is the USS Serve – a veterans group from the U.S. Steel, that helps with projects for the UWNEMN United We Serve program to benefit local veterans, according to Shea.
“They demoed a garage and helped re-landscape, and put together the backyard at the veterans transitional home in Hibbing,” Shea said. “If we had to hire someone to take care of that for us, it would have been very expensive.”
USS Serve members also help deliver holiday meals from the UWMEN United for Veterans program to local veterans.
For its 2020-2021 campaign, UWNEMN raised $2.2 million despite workplace campaigns decreasing from the previous year, which the agency attributes to not being able to go into any workplaces to present on its programs and services due to COVID.
“Nearly $400,000 of our funding last year came from COVID-19 related grants, gifts from companies wanting to help through the crisis, and donations from individuals who don’t normally donate,” Shea noted.
While last year’s campaign total was impressive, Shea said the UWNEMN is moving ahead with some trepidation this year, knowing that the COVID-related funding isn’t available this year — despite the continued need for the programs and services that UWNEMN provides.
The UWNEMN welcomes companies of any size that are interested in hosting a workplace campaign, participating in Buddy Backpacks, or trying a new way to support its work to contact them.
More information on the agency’s services and programs are available at www.uwnemn.org.