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Lending a helping hand: Heron Lake woman focuses on others

Lisa Jean Smith wants to help her community by matching donors with those in need.

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Heron Lake-Okabena Dean of Students Niki Fisher (left) is joined by Heron Lake resident Lisa Jean Smith in the Caring Connections School Store inside the Okabena High School. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

HERON LAKE — When Lisa Jean Smith sees a need in her community, she either meets it or leans on her connections to make it happen.

Such is the case with Heron Lake Caring Connections, a Facebook page the longtime Heron Lake resident created in December as a place for local people to help local people.

The idea for the page grew from Smith’s attempts to donate an artificial Christmas tree with all of the trimmings in early December. There were no takers. At the same time, she listed a box of free Bedford bendable ribbon that garnered all sorts of interest.

“The second one in line said she was disappointed because she wanted to make items for her family because they didn’t have much money,” Smith shared. She offered the woman the tree and trimmings, and the woman was pleased to get it.

The ordeal left Smith wondering why it's so difficult to connect with people in need. Here she was, wanting to give something away, but she couldn’t find any takers.

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She thought creating a Facebook page specifically for Heron Lake area residents would encourage not only an avenue for people to reach out for help, but foster a giving spirit among those who can offer what they have.

“I had seen in some of the other local communities where people put out that they need a box of diapers,” Smith said. “That’s what I thought our site could be.”

Smith created the page in memory of her husband, who died a year and a half ago.

“He grew up in a very poor family — the youngest of seven kids,” Smith shared. “He used to talk about Christmas time. His dad was a janitor at school and would bring home the Christmas tree at winter break. A lot of times, there were no gifts.”

The Facebook page went live Dec. 8. Smith is thrilled with the support, though the page hasn’t seen many requests yet.

“Sometimes we just have to pay better attention to our surroundings,” she said, noting that one day she noticed an individual walking without socks. She put together some necessary clothing items and delivered them to the family’s home.

“They were very appreciative,” she said. “That was a big lesson for me. We have to watch what’s going on around us. People are very proud, and it’s hard to admit when you need help.

“It’s about ‘Need a hand, lend a hand.’

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“I really wanted to create an environment where people feel comfortable and there’s no judgement,” Smith said. “Everybody struggles at some point in their life. We can probably all pinpoint a time. When we can give back, we do.”

Connecting with the school

Smith’s actions didn’t stop at creating a Facebook page. She teamed up with Niki Fisher, part-time dean of students and part-time Greater Minnesota Family Services mental health liaison at Heron Lake Elementary, to make a difference for students in the Heron Lake and Okabena schools.

“In a smaller school, you get to know people on such a personal level,” Fisher said. “You become aware of different home lives and different family situations.

“I’ve been here six years, and I would have never anticipated the needs six years ago as I do right now,” she added.

The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized those needs.

“There’s just a lot of parents working full-time jobs and they’re still not making ends meet,” she said. “I think that’s the hardest part — they’re very willing to work, they’re just not able to keep up.”

Fisher spoke of people who had second jobs at restaurants, bars and other places impacted by the pandemic who lost their secondary income. She sees the fallout from that in the classroom, with some kids saying they don’t have soap or detergent at home, or that “Mom has to wait for the food shelf to open,” which is why they couldn’t bring a snack to school.

It can be heartbreaking to hear those words spoken by kids. It was for Fisher, who not only recalls being in that situation herself once upon a time, but also because she’s a mother of six.

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Fisher responded by reaching out to fellow staff, encouraging them to donate clothes their own kids had outgrown to the school.

“I appreciate people giving me clothes, so when my kids have outgrown them, I give them back to the school,” she said. “Our free and reduced lunch is very high here. We live in a high poverty area.”

Several years ago, a third-grade teacher at Heron Lake Elementary started a Coins for Kids program in which students donated their spare change. All of the money raised was used to purchase coats, hats and gloves for students who didn’t have them.

“About two years ago, the need outpaced what was collected,” Fisher said.

From baskets to supply shops

When Smith initially contacted Fisher, she was seeking to “adopt” a couple of families who might be in need at Christmas and provide them with gifts such as clothing, food and toys.

Rather than help just one family, Fisher suggested collaborating on a Christmas basket program. Word was spread about what was needed, and within 10 days enough supplies had been collected to fill 15 gift baskets for patrons of the Heron Lake Food Shelf. The baskets helped to alleviate the loss of Giving Trees, which were not offered at many churches in 2020 due to the pandemic.

With the success of the gift baskets, Smith and Fisher then worked to address some needs within the Heron Lake-Okabena school district. Fisher and fellow teachers created a list of 35 students in K-12 who could use a little pick-me-up for the holidays, while Smith solicited donations and went shopping.

There were enough supplies to fill a necessities bag with personal care items, new mittens and a hat for each student, along with clothing sets, coats and shoes and a collection of 200 new toys. In addition, each student received a gift certificate for pizza.

When the students selected their bags and items, it surprised Smith that the clothing was nearly always the first stop the kids made, while the toys were the last thing they went for. She told of one student who chose a pair of underwear before looking at anything else.

“Every necessity bag was given out and every jacket was given out,” Fisher said. Leftover toys were divided among teachers to restock their classroom prize boxes.

When everything was distributed, Fisher told Smith of her hopes to start a school store filled with personal care items, school supplies and clothing that would be available to students at no cost.

“Within a few days I had checks for $200 and people dropping off underwear and other items,” Fisher said.

“We absolutely started at the right time,” shared Smith. “People are thinking about giving at that time of year.

The Caring Connections School Shop at Okabena was stocked and ready in late January. Students in Jeff Drent’s shop class built a wooden shelving unit to hold supplies, with teacher Carrie Mischke offered to oversee the store in a former storage closet in her classroom.

Earlier this month, a similar store opened at Heron Lake Elementary.

Now, said Smith, the question is how to continue to sustain the program.

“One of my goals is to have a Tree of Hope for all year long,” she said. “I don’t have that all figured out yet. One of the challenges right now is there are people who would like to donate to our cause (and have it be tax-deductible).”

That requires applying for nonprofit status as a 501(c)3, something Smith is working on.

If it were up to her, the school shops would continue as long as there is a need — and that could go well into the future.

“I’ve gone to church leaders in Heron Lake and Okabena and asked if there were needs in their congregation,” Smith said, adding that she’s talked to some about developing a space where they can store items.

“How many of us don’t have an extra Crock-Pot that someone could probably use,” she said. “I’m hoping we can do that someday. There are a lot of people in our community — it’s not just kids who need help.

“I absolutely know there are elderly in our community who need help,” Smith added.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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