United Way Reflects on Year of Challenges, Strength, and Community

Each year, United Way of 1000 Lakes celebrates the people and companies who have gone above and beyond in making a difference through United Way. The “Best of” Awards highlight companies large and small whose leadership and employees stepped up to care for their community during a time of crisis. 

Best Campaign Climber: Itasca County

The Campaign Climber Award goes to an organization with a history of giving through workplace campaigns. Itasca County’s employees have contributed, hosting company events to celebrate giving back and having numerous staff members donate portions of their paychecks to invest back into the community. Last year, employee giving at Itasca County exceeded that of recent years and even surpassed the organization’s goal, earning the Campaign Climber Award. 

Making an impact in the community is close to the hearts of many at the county. Some staff members see the region’s challenges up close every day in their work, and are familiar with the nonprofit network that fills in gaps and provides resources to those in need. “I’ve always appreciated what the dollars provide to our nonprofit agencies,” says Sherri Gustafson, a county social worker. “I’ve seen the difference personally.”     

Best Virtual Employee Engagement: Lake Country Power

With many workplaces going virtual or hybrid during the pandemic, employee campaign coordinators (individuals who help mobilize employee giving) had to be creative and find ways to unite employees from afar. The Best Virtual Employee Engagement award, new in 2021, honors a company that showed innovation in engaging their employees virtually. 

Lake Country Power took on the challenge of running a campaign in a hybrid workplace. Kicking off with a company-wide virtual trivia session, the energy cooperative generated excitement over giving back and brought their company together over a common purpose: improving the community they serve.

Lake Country Power was awarded the “Best Virtual Employee Engagement” award for their ingenuity in uniting employees around a common cause.

Community Spirit Award: Klockow Brewing Company

As a United 365+ Small Business Circle member, Klockow Brewing Company is no stranger to community impact. When the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect Itasca County, Klockow’s owners, Tasha and Andy, knew they wanted to do something for the community that had done so much to support them. In June of that year, they began a new initiative, donating a portion of proceeds from beverage sales to United Way. 

Klockow giving back didn’t end there. After civic unrest shook the state and country, Klockow joined a network of brewers in creating a special-edition beer to promote racial equity, the proceeds from which were donated to the Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids and Greenway. “The community during the pandemic really supported us…they were here for us,” says Tasha. “It’s the least we can do…to contribute back to our community in whatever way we can.” 

Everyday Hero Award: I.S.D. 318

Teachers and other school staffers spend their days with our community’s young people, teaching and leading the heroes of tomorrow. Those who work in education faced unprecedented challenges during the 2020-2021 school year, dealing with unexpected quarantines, adapting to virtual learning environments, and seeing the challenges of growing up during a pandemic up close. 

Despite, or perhaps because of their relationship with the young learners of Itasca County, I.S.D. 318’s staff came through to support their community in 2021. More employees than ever before invested in their community through United Way, with many contributing to the 2020 Challenge and helping United Way meet their year-end fundraising goal. 

Local Love in Action: Mann’s Cinema 8

In the spring of 2020, businesses around the country had to contend with adapting their business practices on short notice when stay-at-home orders took hold and it became clear that COVID-19 wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

Mann’s Cinema 8 in Grand Rapids joined Mann’s Theatres across the state in giving back through an adapted business model. Since they couldn’t show movies in the theatre, the local cinema began offering curbside pickup for popcorn and other movie theatre treats, keeping staff working while they prepared for a return to in-person showings. Recognizing that the pandemic meant that many would be struggling economically and otherwise, Mann’s Theatres donated a portion of sales to United Ways in Minnesota, raising over $11,000 for COVID-19 relief. In Itasca County, the cinema in Grand Rapids put their care for their community into action, donating $993 to the Itasca Area Community Response Fund.

Klockow Brewing Company received the “Community Spirit” award for their fundraising initiatives in 2020.

United Way Day of Action Award: City of Coleraine

United Way annually brings volunteers together for one day in June to complete large-scale community revitalization projects. This work wouldn’t be possible without the partnership of other organizations, who help mobilize volunteers, plan and support projects, and help conduct outreach. 

In 2020, Day of Action looked different, bringing together volunteers on six different occasions to paint, landscape, and more in downtown Coleraine. The City of Coleraine was an invaluable partner in this work, with city staff working closely with United Way and other project partners Habitat for Humanity and CEDA to pull off the summer’s activities safely. City staff worked alongside volunteers as they freshened up homes, yards, businesses, and public spaces like City Hall and Longyear Park, succeeding in bringing people from all over the Itasca area together to improve the community.

Each year, United Way also recognizes its Top Ten Most Generous Companies and Workplaces, whose leadership and employees raise the most funds for United Way’s annual campaign. Funds raised during each campaign support United Way’s investments in local nonprofits, as well as in-house initiatives that benefit Itasca-area communities, including the School Supplies Drive and backpack distribution program and Bonfire, the region’s online volunteer portal. 

Mayor Thomas Nielsen, City Clerk Briana Anderson, and former mayor Dan Mandich accepted an award recognizing the City of Coleraine’s instrumental role in United Way’s 2020 Days of Action initiative.

Each of these companies, along with countless other organizations, community groups, and individuals throughout the greater Itasca area came together to support the northland during a year of unprecedented challenges. As the region continues to recover, rebuild, and move into a hopeful future, working together and supporting each other will remain essential. 

Over the coming weeks, United Way will be releasing a series of videos highlighting the award winners above. Community members are invited to tune in to this virtual celebration of the Itasca area and those who make it great by following along at uwlakes.org or on the organization’s Facebook page. To join these changemakers in making a difference in the region, visit uwlakes.org.

Learn more about this year’s ‘Best of’ Award winners by watching our Stronger United video series.