Challenges and Joys in Northfield

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

 

As part of our Hometown Values & Vision reporting, thanks to a 2023 grant from First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, we visited Northfield to learn what the community is working on together in order to build strength and vitality.

 

Kelli Podracky (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Kelli Podracky, Northfield Union of Youth

I was born and raised in Tampa. My husband and I spent the last decade in the Orlando area, raising four kids. Fighting against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Florida became exhausting and disheartening. Ultimately, we decided it was best for our queer family to leave the state.

Minnesota caught our attention, primarily because of its trans protection laws and the values of Governor Walz. Initially, we had our sights on settling in the Twin Cities, but a real estate agent introduced us to Northfield. I decided to check it out during an exploratory trip in April 2023 and found it charming, with a welcoming atmosphere epitomized by the library’s “all are welcome here” sign.

We still thought we would work in the metro and perhaps commute from Northfield. I found an executive director position for Northfield Union of Youth (NUY). It was a good fit for my background in education, nonprofit, and advocacy for marginalized groups. I accepted an offer and started work shortly after moving here in August 2023.

NUY operates The Key, the nation’s longest-running youth-run center, which serves as a life-giving, life-saving space for historically underserved youth ages 12–20. Many of the kids don’t otherwise have anyone showing up for them; if you come in every day and say “I’m here,” that is big.

The Key’s youth board meets weekly to drive programming and initiatives. The youth board makes decisions on fundraising, what food is needed, what we are doing about mental health, how to get transportation to events, and more.

Everyone on the leadership board is under the age of 21; some are as young as 12. It is a phenomenal model. I’ve never been a part of something like this before. The new youth board president has already established relationships with community partners.

The Key offers food access seven days a week. Just Food donates $350 worth of food weekly. The nearby Rotary Club and Bethel Lutheran Church bring hot meals to The Key. We collaborate with Carleton students who gather leftover food each week and bring prepackaged meals to The Key. We have a fully equipped kitchen, enabling kids to prepare meals. NUY partners with colleges to collaborate on access to classes, volunteerism, and interns.

NUY also oversees the Wallflower Project, which supports youth who are facing housing stability issues. Host homes in the community offer temporary accommodations. Emergency housing funds come from Northfield’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which pays for hotel stays for youth 18 to 24.

I treasure the value of inclusivity in Northfield. When my college-aged son visited, he felt comfortable walking down the street with his partner, free from judgment or scrutiny. He and his partner will move here in July after graduation.

Northfield isn’t perfect, and there’s room for growth, but I tend to feel that most of the community is fighting alongside us, rather than against us.

Editor’s Note: While we were conversing, a young person connected to The Key stopped by the table at a local coffee shop and shared what they found helpful in the space. “I lost a lot of folks around me. I started transitioning and exploring my gender identity about a year ago. The staff was very friendly and helped me explore my own thoughts about changing pronouns or changing my name. I didn’t grow up in town, but visited whenever I could after I could drive. Now I live here.”


Jennyffer Barrientos (photo by Sarah Whiting)

 

Jennyffer Barrientos, Growing Up Healthy

I work for Growing Up Healthy, which is a program supported by the Healthy Community Initiative. Our early childhood navigators help with childhood screenings, vaccines, finding scholarships for preschools, sporting fellowships for kids, food resources — anything to help kids be ready for kindergarten.

Parent Child+ is an educational program in collaboration with Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis — a two-year intensive home visiting program with children 14 to 48 months old and their caregivers. Early Learning Specialists come to the family’s home with a toy or book to play and read with the child and parent. Families receive free educational books and toys; parents discover creative ways to teach their children and learn together. It is a 30-minute visit twice a week during the school year.

If kids don’t have a safe, secure home, it’s harder for them to pay attention at school. Many families we work with live in mobile homes; many of them are deteriorating, with frozen water pipes in the winter. We have a rehab program that does minor repairs so families have time to figure out whether they can move out or find resources to do deeper repairs.

We work with about 300 families in Northfield and Faribault. Many of them include caregivers working in factories in Apple Valley and Faribault. There has been a rising number of new families coming, trying to find jobs and housing. We need more affordable housing at different income levels. Some families barely above the guidelines are struggling. There are a lot of two-bedrooms, but some have multiple families living in the same household who cannot live in a small apartment.

We have been talking a lot about transportation here. Families that have doctor’s appointments in the city find it hard to get there. Services from Uber or Lyft are hard to find. To get from the north side of town to Cub Foods, in the south side of town, is generally a 12- to 15-minute drive, but takes an hour by bus. We have a shuttle, but that is spendy.

Our family engagement navigators work in the elementary schools and have seen a lot of mental health issues arise, especially after Covid. We are constantly looking for mental health services, especially from a diversity of providers so that people can speak with someone who looks and speaks like them.

We work to try to fill gaps in resources for immigrant families. Many come here from Central America and don’t have blankets, cooking utensils, pillows — the basics. We collaborate with the United Way, Community Action Center, public schools, and local cities.

I feel like Northfield has come a long way since I graduated from high school in 2005. It is the community wanting to do good, and a willingness to hear directly from those who are struggling. The Northfield superintendent met with families in the evening hours to talk one on one about the school system. I think that is key to progress we are making.


Elizabeth Child (photo by Sarah Whiting)

 

Elizabeth Child, Rice County Area United Way

Our mission at United Way is to get people to care about what’s happening. We’re raising money, promoting volunteerism, and creating projects that might inspire people to care. We will do a Day of Caring in June. Workplace and residential campaigns bring in money.

Dolly Parton’s foundation partners with us to give books to families with small children. Together we mail books to nearly half of all children up to five years old in Northfield and Faribault. We opened up a nonprofit bookstore and collected thousands of books; all the proceeds go back to community nonprofits.

We collaborate with the Greater Twin Cities United Way on the 988 and the 211 line. People call about housing needs. During the pandemic, some were looking for help to pay utilities, but now it’s straight shelter. People are homeless. It’s heartbreaking.

Nearly every nonprofit we work with cites transportation as a high barrier to access. It is hard to exist without a car here.

I am involved with youth mental health, which is a huge crisis everywhere. For example, the accessibility of drugs, reaching even kids in elementary and middle school, is a big issue. There just aren’t enough mental health resources in schools. Getting mental health counselors to move to a rural area is tough. They’re having enough trouble in the Twin Cities.

We’re collaborating with health and education nonprofits to develop projects with youth who tell their stories and then do something creative with that to help fund mental health and substance use programs for youth. What do young people want parents and other adults to know? What would they like asked?


 

Natalie Draper (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Natalie Draper, Northfield Public Library

I moved here just a little over three years ago from Richmond, Virginia, during the pandemic. There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to make you evaluate things. There were a lot of openings for library directors. Northfield was extremely appealing. The community presents itself as values first; there is a strong sense of uplift here.

Richmond was a community that struggled a lot. The libraries did important work supporting the most underserved people, but we were understaffed and underfunded and underappreciated. The constant uphill battle was overwhelming. So I came to a place where the library was well supported. Many organizations in the community are focused on making sure that kids are getting what they need to perform well in school.

It can be hard for some people to get transportation to downtown Northfield, where the library is. We were able to raise $100,000 in a year to build a satellite location. I was impressed that we did not have to do a lot of convincing.

The strength of the library extends to bilingual services. Spanish-speaking residents also take computer and business classes, programming for children, and yoga. It’s wonderful to have a diverse group of people who all feel welcome. When I left the library today, a family was getting passports and all the computers were full. It was humming with activity.

 

 

 

 

 

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