Winter arrives in Minneapolis carrying two sacks. In one is the bright hustle and bustle of the holiday season. In the other are the frigid cold temperatures that threaten vulnerable families.
At Risen Christ Elementary School, where 98 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, City Connects Coordinator Lindsay O’Keefe and a group of local community partners are prepared to deal with all aspects of winter. This is essential, because, as O’Keefe explains, “Minnesota is really cold. We don’t have snow days. We have cold days where they cancel school because it is so dangerous to have the kids outside waiting for the bus because the wind chills are so cold.”
To boost the fun part of winter, O’Keefe spreads the magic of the holiday season by working with a colleague from Catholic Charities to connect families to a Christmas gift program run by Sponsor a Family MN, a local nonprofit.
“Every single family in our school can sign up for three Christmas gifts for every member of the family that lives in the house. The adults and the kids get three gifts.” Often, families ask for winter coats and boots.
Sponsor a Family mobilizes community support by choosing sponsors for families in need. These sponsors “can be individuals, businesses, community organizations, churches, religious organizations or anyone who wants to help.” An essential piece of the program is having O’Keefe and other case managers verify families’ needs.
“Families pick up their gifts a week before Christmas at a huge warehouse. It’s amazing to go to. Families are just so excited to pick up their gifts.” The program supports 600 families in the area, 250 of which are Risen Christ families.
Through another program that grew from working with a school volunteer who has a connection to Macy’s department store, O’Keefe helps families get brand new coats for children who are in the first, third, and fifth grades. The idea is that the coats will last for two years. (Children who need coats in the other grades, can request them through the Sponsor a Family program.)
Another community partner is the Pax Christi Catholic Church which takes a two-pronged approach to supplying winter necessities. A group of knitters make hats, scarves, and mittens. The church also runs a donation drive to gather new hats, scarves, and mittens. All these items go into a donation bin that’s located at Risen Christ in the teachers’ lounge.
“There’s just a lot of people looking out for our kids to keep them warm,” O’Keefe says.
The hazards of a Minneapolis winter — temperatures stuck in the teens and single digits – are particularly dangerous for homeless families. O’Keefe is helping several homeless families who are doubled up with other families. She’s working to help them find new, affordable housing within Risen Christ’s public-school busing district because the public school system provides transportation to Risen Christ.
O’Keefe also works hard to prevent families from becoming homeless. To do this, she draws on support from St. Joan of Arc Parish where parishioners give money to the Care Fund, which helps families who need financial assistance with things like rent, utilities, or gas for their cars. O’Keefe says it’s easy to see the weight lift off parents’ shoulders for that month.
The Care Program includes a specific partnership with Risen Christ families who have emergencies and need help paying rent or utilities for one month to keep them in sustainable housing.
“I can’t change the larger systematic things that are happening,” O’Keefe says, “but I can work with the families that are here and do all that I can. That’s where I can make my impact, with the families that I see day in and day out,” O’Keefe says, adding:
“This goes with the City Connects approach of trying to help families meet their needs so that their kids can be the best students they can be when they’re here at school.”