Last week, Brainerd resident Kyle Amundson wasn’t convinced by the mounting concern over the new coronavirus.

He wondered whether the frightening news blanketing media sources of all kinds was overblown. A conversation with a friend — who also happens to be an infectious disease expert — quickly changed his mindset. Despite looking forward to the Crosslake St. Patrick's Day parade every year, he'd decided not to go even before the event was canceled. Thoughts of how the spreading pandemic would affect his own family led him to consider those in the community who will be caring for the sick.

“My parents are 80, and my father takes medication that really leaves him compromised as far as his immune system goes. He’s also diabetic,” Amundson said by phone Monday, March 16. “...So I was very concerned about that. And, you know, I started thinking about the people taking care of him. And I’m like, well, these people are going to see a lot of people like my father, if indeed the trend continues. … I’m thinking about how many people like my father they’re going to have to deal with, and I’m just like, wow, you know, what about their lives?”

It wasn’t long before this concern translated into action. With the help of some friends, he launched a Facebook group called BLA Communities Ties — short for Brainerd Lakes Area — with intentions of rallying the community to assist those who are expected to be on the frontlines of a global pandemic.

“I just hope we can ease their burden, because they’re going to be taking care of us. Somebody should be taking care of them,” Amundson said.

Creator of the Facebook group BLA Community Ties Kyle Amundson poses with wife Christine Amundson, who also helps out with administering the social media group. Submitted photo
Creator of the Facebook group BLA Community Ties Kyle Amundson poses with wife Christine Amundson, who also helps out with administering the social media group. Submitted photo

Amundson envisioned it as a way for health care workers and other emergency responders to ask for help when needed during their potentially long shifts, such as assistance with child care, letting out the family dog or picking up a gallon of milk. In less than a week, the group has grown to more than 4,000 members and developed into an information hub for innumerable resources for those in need. Amundson said within 24 hours, people were already in the community helping one another: offering diapers, helping each other find household goods, leaving stashes of games and coloring books outside for neighbors to take for free or connecting people to unemployment resources, for example.

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Interested in joining the group?

To check out what neighbors might need or to become a member of the Facebook group BLA Community Ties, visit https://bit.ly/2JgzmAd.

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“The other day, I raced another member to drop off baby wipes for a woman who didn't want to drag her kids to the store. I lost,” Amundson said. “During the first hours of the group’s existence, someone posted a list of need items for Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen and multiple people dropped off those list items. It goes on and on. If you scroll through, you can see it working. I'm delighted.”

It’s people like Matt McCormick, his family and his co-workers who could benefit from the grassroots community effort with a motto attributed to Henry Ford: “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.”

McCormick is a nurse at Riverwood Healthcare Center’s Aitkin clinic, and he comes from a family of nurses including an aunt, his parents Curtis and Margaret McCormick and his girlfriend, Katie Richardson. A friend of Amundson’s who’s also an administrator of the Facebook group, McCormick said he isn’t too uneasy himself about what may lie ahead with the COVID-19 outbreak, but he knows some of his colleagues are experiencing mounting anxiety.

“I kind of accept the chance to be able to help out when there is emergencies,” McCormick said. “I do know that there’s a lot of fellow nurses that are anxious. It’s kind of a blend between anxious and readiness. For me, it’s just, I feel it’s more of just another day, and I’ve got to do what I can to be there for these doctors and other staff as well as patients.”

McCormick said as the pandemic progresses, he expects more people will need help not only with day-to-day living, but also with their mental health. Knowing the community is supportive and willing to assist could alleviate some of that pressure.

“I think it’ll definitely fill gaps especially as the virus moves into the area, when we’ve got people who may have been exposed. They may have a family member that has tested positive and they might be in the hospital and the whole family’s on a self-quarantine in their own home for 14 days — there’s going to be a need for people to drop off resources,” McCormick said. “There’s going to have to be some planning with it, but most of the people in the group have seemed very eager to help out where they can. And if that means picking up groceries and dropping them at someone’s front door so they can get them without any contact with another person, that’s going to be really helpful.”

McCormick said the best way the community can help doctors and nurses, along with all the others who keep a hospital running, is to listen to the directives from public health agencies.

“People really need to take this seriously. There is a lot of panic, which is understandable. But there’s also a lot of dismissiveness about this, and that I think is going to cause more harm in the long run. Our hospitals only have so many beds for the patients,” McCormick said. “... People need to realize that even though things seem normal now, it seems like every day that every interaction you have with another person is potentially going to make this a lot worse.”

With an uncertain future ahead, administrators of the Facebook group are holding on to the silver linings: a sudden and growing sense of unity across a number of divides and neighbors helping neighbors for the sake of it.

Amanda Schwarzkopf, another friend of Amundson’s who works in social services and has a long history of community organizing the lakes area, said she isn’t surprised to see the outpouring of support.

“I think the fact is, this really is going to touch everyone,” Schwarzkopf said. “Viruses are not partisan and they are not racist. It’s something that is really going to touch everyone, and so I think everybody is kind of coming together around that. The Brainerd area, in my experience, is unique. No matter what sort of ideological differences we may have, I’ve known the community to be incredibly generous and incredibly quick to work together and collaborate to face whatever the community needs.”

Amundson said creating the group and watching it grow has given him a sense of purpose and a source of inspiration.

“When everybody else is looking at their social media and they’re groaning, and they’re mad about toilet paper and all this stuff, I’m looking at people that are giving and offering and helping and can’t wait to do more, and that’s good for anybody’s day,” he said. “... At its root, it’s survival, really. But beyond that, it’s community, and I think it just shows that these people have a lot more in common than they have dividing them, which is nice when we’re reminded of that.”

UPDATE: This story was updated to more accurately reflect Amundson's thoughts and actions concerning the Crosslake St. Patrick's Day parade.

The Dispatch regrets the error.

As a public service, we've opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.