Nonprofits feel pandemic's ripple effect with fewer volunteers

Local nonprofits such as Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity/ReStore, Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center/Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center, and Common Goods/Bridges of Hope depend on volunteers, who are often older and are in short supply due to coronavirus concerns.

Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Kevin Pelkey (left) watches as employees of ReStore Joe Cluever and Shawn Kinney load a couch into the back of a truck Thursday, July 30, at ReStore on Wright Street in Brainerd. Local nonprofits are struggling to attract volunteers to their facilities during the coronavirus pandemic. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

They’re used to helping others. But now they could use a little help themselves.

Local nonprofits count on volunteers to provide countless hours of work that would otherwise be performed with paid labor. With the number of coronavirus cases on the rise, however, volunteers are in short supply.

“Volunteers really are the backbone of nonprofit organizations, with current events making that even clearer,” said Shannon Wussow, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center in Brainerd.


Volunteers are often older individuals, a demographic most at risk of dying from COVID-19 complications, so many seniors may be choosing not to volunteer rather than risk being infected by public contact and developing the potentially fatal respiratory disease.

“The volunteers that can’t come back right now? We want you to know that we understand and we think it’s the right choice for them not to be volunteering right now because they do need to be careful,” said Andrea Martin, store manager at Common Goods, a thrift store in Crosslake.

Common Goods

The proceeds from the Common Goods store in Crosslake and its companion store in Baxter help fund the local nonprofit Bridges of Hope in Brainerd.

“We rely on volunteers to help us get the job done. They help us with processing our donations with sorting, pricing, putting items away, keeping the store clean,” Martin said.

The Crosslake location closed March 27 per the governor’s mandate closing nonessential businesses to slow the spread of the virus. It reopened May 18 after restrictions were loosened.

“It's been steady. We, as a thrift store, there was an increased demand for donation. Because all thrift stores were closed for several months, we saw an influx of items,” Martin said.

Common Goods offers high-quality goods at reasonable prices, including clothing, fashion accessories, casual and one-of-a-kind home furnishings, and unique furniture pieces.

“We actually provide 80% of the revenue streams before COVID and so all the revenues from the stores go to Bridges of Hope. Bridges of Hope is a safety net in our community. We serve all of Crow Wing County and the surrounding area with our crisis support services,” Martin said.


Common Goods was created to be a venue for community members to give their time, talents and treasures, according to Bridges of Hope’s website, and it’s an enterprise dependent upon volunteers.

“They’re vital to helping us keep our costs down and helping us keep up with the demand of taking donations and running a store, so we’ve been greatly impacted by COVID because a lot of our volunteers are in the at-risk category,” Martin said.

Bridges of Hope is a faith-based nonprofit operating out of Brainerd. Its mission is to “build bridges of support, anchored in Christ’s love, between families in the lakes area and the community assets that can help them thrive and gain hope.”

“Our volunteers that were helping us out from the group home have not been allowed to come back because of the restrictions on the group home. Several other volunteers who are elderly have not felt comfortable coming back because they’re in the at-risk category because of their age,” Martin said.

Among adults, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, with older adults at highest risk. Severe illness means that the person with COVID-19 may require hospitalization, intensive care, or a ventilator to help them breathe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s one gentleman at our Baxter store that’s been volunteering almost since the beginning, so 10 years of volunteering. He sorts and puts all the books out and he hasn't been able to come back … so then stuff like that starts to pile up,” Martin said.

Martin said she has grown accustomed to having two or three volunteers every day at her Crosslake store but now she feels fortunate if she has that many a week even though the governor’s stay-at-home order to minimize social contact has been rescinded.

“We’re not able to get through (donated) items as quickly, so we’re not able to take as many items. And we’re not getting as many items into the store as if we would have had more help,” Martin said.


Kelli Plemel (right) hands a bag of items to Common Goods store manager Danell Eggert as a donation Wednesday, June 17, at the Common Goods in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity

Kevin Pelkey is the executive director of Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity, another Brainerd-based nonprofit. Its ReStore home improvement store sells salvaged goods.

“We actually shuttered operations about a week-and-a-half to two weeks before the shelter-in-place order went into effect. And it was largely due to concerns from staff and feeling that we weren’t equipped to handle the coronavirus that was going around,” Pelkey said.

Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity’s mission is “to put God’s love into action (to bring) people together to build homes, community and hope.”

“And then when the shelter-in-place went into effect, all of our operations shuttered and that included construction, so our entire staff was furloughed for a period of time,” Pelkey said.

The faith-based nonprofit was fortunate enough to receive a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, a business loan program established by the federal government Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to help employers pay their workers.


“We did call for volunteers to return but we knew that we had limitations that Habitat International was releasing as guidelines across the country … to limit the number of people to 10 or fewer in any given part of our program, including construction, ReStore,” Pelkey said.

Based on Habitat for Humanity International’s guidelines, the decision was made that Lakes Area Habitat will invite up to three volunteers at a time for building homes or to work at ReStore.

“We’ve had a very, very slow response of people who are ready and willing to come back and volunteer, so from their own personal health reasons,” Pelkey said. “Most of our volunteer corps have chosen to remain home or not involved.”

The Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity ReStore sells new and used furniture, appliances and building supplies at a fraction of the retail price. All proceeds support Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity’s work building homes for local families.

“We have had to really shift our thinking on how we do our work. ReStore, for instance, we did hire additional people, so that we could manage the business that space and place has, so we’ve really had a pretty dramatic scale back in volunteer engagement if you will,” Pelkey said.

ReStore provides quality building materials to the general public at discounted prices, prevents usable items from ending up in landfills, and increases the number of homes built with low-income families through Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity through selling donated items.

“We welcome the opportunity to talk to anyone who is willing to consider becoming a volunteer here and then try to figure out a schedule that accommodates restrictions and whatnot,” Pelkey said.

Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center

The center has been empowering victims of domestic violence through a variety of programs since 1978. The nonprofit provides a 24-hour intake to emergency shelter for individuals experiencing domestic violence including women, along with their children and pets, and men.


Volunteers can work, for example, as a child mentor, or become a part of a committee to assist the board of directors or the executive director, donate their time as a companion animal caregiver, a maintenance person, an office assistant, a receptionist or a transportation assistant.

“Truly, the possibilities are endless,” said Wussow, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center. “They’re required to go through a background check and interview process with our volunteer coordinator.”

Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center had 174 volunteers last year, according to Wussow, and each one was a necessary component in ensuring the nonprofit continues to help survivors of domestic violence and child abuse.

“The other thing, too, is — once somebody sits down and meets with our volunteer coordinator — if they have a special skill or something that is of special interest to them that they would like to share with our clients and residents … we can typically make that happen,” Wussow said.

Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center provides personal advocacy, information and referral, support groups, and community education in addition to physical safety for domestic violence victims.

“We would not be able to do what we do without volunteers. We would either not be able to provide those services, or we would be having to provide those services with a paid employee, which then would impact the program that we provide as well,” Wussow said.


Shannon Wussow, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Women's Center, talks Thursday, June 25, during an anniversary celebration for the Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center, which is an arm of the women's center providing a place for safe child exchanges and supervised parental visits. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center in Brainerd is an arm of the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center that provides a safe place for child exchanges and supervised parental visits.

“One area that is extremely important is the receptionist, but it would have to be somebody who was comfortable being in a residential living facility environment and their health situation was such that they felt comfortable coming into that,” Wussow said of volunteers needed.

The center now has volunteers on a limited basis at its facilities until early September, according to Wussow.

“Our volunteers have been very eager to come back. And we are very grateful for that because we’re eager for them to come back too, but we’re just trying to make sure that we are operating and erring on the side of caution for the sake of everybody involved,” Wussow said.

As with many in-person things that have gone virtual during the pandemic to promote social distancing and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, volunteer opportunities at the center have also gone virtual.

“We’re switching over to virtual ways of staying connected. People would be able to pick up cards and write out thank-you cards for us from their own home as opposed to within our facility,” Wussow gave as an example.

Interested in volunteering?

  • Those interested in volunteering at Common Goods in Crosslake should call Andrea Martin at 218-692-7682. Or to volunteer at the Baxter store, call Danell Eggert at 218-824-0923.

  • Those interested in volunteering at Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity in Brainerd should call Kevin Pelkey at 218-828-8517.

  • Those interested in volunteering at the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center in Brainerd should contact Lenora Zino at 218-537-0588 or .

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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