Area nonprofits welcome back vaccinated senior volunteers

Some seniors shied away from volunteering a year ago when a COVID-19 vaccine wasn't available. But a year later, local nonprofits welcome the return of free help as more seniors get vaccinated and are volunteering.

Volunteer Terry Havir stocks paint at the Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore home improvement store Thursday, March 25, 2021 after being vaccinated for Covid-19. The fifteen-year veteran volunteer has been working at the store repurposing hardware and paint as well as other things. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Gary Whiteman knew it was only a matter of time before he and his wife Judy would return to volunteering.

The 80-year-old Brainerd resident said they received one of the three COVID-19 vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use for the prevention of the disease. They belong to one of the most vulnerable demographics.

“I go once a week on Tuesday in the morning,” he said of their volunteer work with Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity. “We’re there to clean and stock shelves and so on, so there are no customers — just the people that work at Habitat.”


Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore home improvement store on Wright Street in Brainerd sells salvaged goods.

“It’s a great place to recycle things — let’s put it that way. I hate seeing all this stuff going into the dump and so on, and there are people out there that can really use it,” said Gary Whiteman.

Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity

Whiteman, a retired Brainerd High School biology teacher and his wife have been volunteering with the Christian nonprofit for more than two decades — that is until the coronavirus pandemic, and at least one coronavirus case reported among its workers, forced it to temporarily close.

But with the vaccine available, people like the Whitemans are feeling safe returning to their volunteer work.

“We have seen more seniors returning to volunteer, and mostly it’s because we’re starting to see more and more of our volunteers with their full vaccinated shots, so they feel more comfortable returning,” said Kevin Pelkey, executive director of Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity.

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Local nonprofits count on volunteers to provide countless hours of work that would otherwise be performed with paid labor. When the number of COVID-19 cases reached alarming proportions earlier in the pandemic, some volunteers decided to postpone volunteering.

It’s good they’re coming back, Pelkey said.


Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore home improvement store volunteer Terry Havir wraps newly repurposed bathroom hardware Thursday, March 25, 2021. The hardware will be stocked on the shelves. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“Well, actually we are on the edge of what we call our ‘crazy season’ starting again, so the return of more volunteers has helped us get prepared for it,” Pelkey said of the start of spring.

Volunteers are often retirees who have more time on their hands. But senior citizens are the demographic most at risk of dying from COVID-19 complications, so some healthy seniors had chosen during the pandemic to not volunteer rather than risk infection by public contact.

“We are so happy to have more people to help us when we start getting what we call the ‘spring surge’ of donations and shoppers … so to have volunteers returning is just a blessing,” Pelkey said.

The vaccination rate of Minnesota seniors reached almost 80% earlier this month. The Minnesota Department of Health prioritized that demographic because they comprised almost 90% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

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The absence of that demographic of volunteers was felt at Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity, Pelkey said.

“We hired on additional people — three additional people as seasonal employees — to fill in for the absence of volunteers,” Pelkey said.

The nonprofit received a loan last year 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.


“I don’t know what this year is going to look like. But at this point in time, we are starting to see that return of volunteers, so it might change our thinking … about needing to hire more people,” Pelkey said.

Terry Havir, volunteer at the Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore home improvement store stocks refurbished hardware he has cleaned Thursday, March 26, 2021 at the Brainerd store. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

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.

“Construction is still slow to return, and we still have to comply with the state requirements. The state Department of Labor and Industry has restricted construction sites to 10 people or fewer and that has not been lifted yet,” Pelkey said.

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ReStore provides 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 bring in volunteers to help us when the store’s closed to clean things, to price things, to stage things, so we are busy on Mondays and Tuesdays — just without shoppers,” Pelkey said.

Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center

Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center had 182 volunteers last year and many were seniors, according to officials, who said the volunteers completed about 3,790 hours of service on behalf of the nonprofit to help survivors of domestic violence and child abuse.


“We have seen more of a desire for them wanting to come back to volunteer,” said Shannon Wussow, executive director of the center. “There were more responsibilities that fell onto our paid staff during the pandemic that were typically taken care of by our volunteers.”

The center has worked with 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.

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“Because our volunteers are so important to what it is that we do, we are actually going to err on the side of caution and wait until we have more staff vaccinated before welcoming them back into our facilities,” Wussow said. “For right now, outdoor volunteer options are available.”

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.

“There really has been a strong desire to get back and connect with our clients, connect with our residents, connect with our staff, and just kind of have that interaction with people again, so there’s been a desire for quite some time,” 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.

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“Some of the trends in our community where some other agencies and organizations are starting to open up a little bit, some more activities are being scheduled in person … is easing some of the seniors’ concerns as well besides being vaccinated,” Wussow said.

“Although it hasn’t been taking place inside our facilities, we’ve still had volunteers who have been assisting us with various things such as, you know, writing thank-you notes.”


The shelter provided residential services last year to 410 men, women and children, and nine pets — a 45% increase from the previous year. An additional 5,522 people received non-residential services from the shelter, a 15% increase from 2019, according to Wussow. The Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center in Brainerd is an arm of the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center in Brainerd that provides a safe place for child exchanges and supervised parental visits.

“We typically have somebody, a volunteer, sitting at our front desk at our shelter, answering the phone, greeting people as they come in, and we have not had a volunteer receptionist for this entire time, so those responsibilities fell on the staff,” Wussow said.

As with many in-person things that went 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’ve got additional people who have actually completed their registration process (to volunteer), so that way they’re ready to go as soon as we’re able to open our doors again,” Wussow said.

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 features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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