Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Discussing the economy and jobs at a Faribault thrift store June 5, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:03 AM
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“THE ECONOMY WILL only get worse and this time it will be world-wide,” he warns, he being an unemployed, former military man.

“But I think things are getting better,” I counter. “I’ve seen more jobs openings posted in the paper, more houses selling.”

He disagrees, says he has military friends in Europe. Times are tough there and only getting worse.

I am surprised by the doom-and-gloom economic forecast delivered by this 50-something-year-old job seeker during a brief conversation at The Clothes Closet, a used clothing store in downtown Faribault. I don’t know him, but he’s squeezed past me several times, carrying clothing from the back of the store to the check-out counter.

Finally, I can no longer contain my curiosity and comment, “You’re sure buying a lot of clothes.”

“I’m looking for a job,” he says, then begins spilling his story like we are long-time friends.

He can’t make ends meet on his military pension, although he’s grateful for that income, he says. So he’s looking for a job in security, maybe with the border patrol. He’ll travel soon to Corpus Christi in search of work that pays more than $9 an hour.

His 15-year-old daughter, who has been living with her mother, is coming with him. He’s relieved to no longer be paying $900 in monthly child support to a woman he says did not spend the money on their daughter. He seems genuinely happy to have his girl back.

But he’s not so cheerful about the process of applying for a job. “It’s not like it used to be where you can walk in and sell yourself,” he says. He doesn’t like the online resume job-screening process, preferring instead the personal one-on-one contact with a potential employer.

He looks like the type of fellow who could, face-to-face, easily sell himself as a security guard. Ex-military. Big guy. I expect he appears intimidating and authoritative in a uniform.

But for now, for this day, he is an unemployed and worried American buying clothes at a second-hand clothing store in Minnesota.

I was searching in my files for an image to illustrate this post. This particular photo has nothing to do with the man I engaged in conversation or the thrift store where we talked or even his job search. Yet, I consider it fitting for this story, and here’s why. To me, this shot from Main Street in tiny Norwalk exhibits this southwestern Wisconsin community’s optimism. Against the backdrop of weathered and shuttered buildings stand two symbols of optimism: those gorgeous hanging baskets and the American flag. Norwalk, along the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, calls itself “The Black Squirrel Capital of the World.”

WHAT’S YOUR OPINION on the economy? Is is improving or, as the ex-military man predicts, going to get considerably worse here and world-wide by this fall?

According to “employment situation” information released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on June 1, “the unemployment rate (for May) was essentially unchanged at 8.2 percent.” Currently, 12.7 million people are unemployed. The unemployment rate for adult men is 7.8 percent. To read the full report, click here.

ARE YOU LOOKING for a job? Share your experience by submitting a comment. How do you feel about the online job application process used by most businesses?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The cost of prom and ways to save money April 28, 2012

A 1984 bridesmaid's dress I donated last year to the Faribault High School National Honor Society Prom Dress Drive.

EVEN I WAS SHOCKED when I read the number: $1,078.

That, dear readers, is the average amount American teens are spending on their high school proms this spring, according to results of a Visa Inc. Prom Spending Survey.

Surprised?

I knew the cost of prom was over-the-top, but not to that level of out-of-control spending.

If it’s any solace, here in the Midwest, prom-going teens spend $696, the least of anywhere in the nation. Those in the Northeast shell out $1,944. Southern teens spend an average of $1,047 and those on the West Coast, $744.

Surprised? Shocked? I am.

But wait, there’s more. According to the survey (click here to read a complete report), prom spending is up nearly 34 percent from the 2011 average of $807.

Surprised? Shocked? I am.

That all said, there are ways to cut prom costs, still look great and enjoy this special high school event. Readers of this blog offered plenty of creative money-saving ideas earlier this week after I posted about prom. Since I expect not all readers peruse the comments, here are the suggestions they offered:

No one was more adamant about cutting prom costs than Joan, who advocates thrift store shopping to save significant dollars. Her son picked up a second-hand suit at a local thrift store and his date is wearing a $20 dress from the Salvation Army. Joan spent $10 for the silk flowers she purchased at a craft store and then crafted. Another $45 goes for two prom tickets. She’s spent $10 for after-prom food and will spend an additional amount for her son’s dinner out. Add those numbers, and the cost for Joan’s son to attend prom will likely be around $100.

Affordable? Yes.

A friend of mine, a young mother who lives in Washington D.C., sent a link to a Utah-based business that rents prom dresses for $39 – $99, plus a cleaning fee. Modest Prom lists its mission: Help you find a modest prom dress. Click here to learn about this rental option.

Another reader, a South Dakota mom who last year spent $280 on her daughter’s prom dress, recouped 75 percent of the cost by selling the dress after prom. This year that same mom shelled out $400 for her daughter’s gown.

A similar strategy is recommended by another reader. Her friend bought a dress after prom for a fraction of the price. “Styles don’t change dramatically in a year,” she says.

In Australia, another mom says her daughter is covering some of the costs for attending her school formal.

And then there’s the Twin Cities metro area mother who offers this alternative. Her son, on prom night, invited friends over for pizza, prom night movies and video games. “He got a great turnout, and the kids had a blast,” she says.

My 18-year-old isn’t attending Faribault High School’s prom tonight. His older sisters never attended prom either. I, however, went to my high school proms in 1973 and 1974. Things were different back then. I sewed my dresses. Girls and guys could go solo. We didn’t get our hair or nails done or pay photographers or dine out or ride in limos or… Prom was much simpler back then and certainly way cheaper.

Times have changed and as much as I’d like to sometimes turn the clock back to those simpler days, I can’t.

But I do have two ideas to cut prom costs. How about cooking a fancy meal in your home for your prom-going son/daughter and his/her date? My mom did that for my youngest brother back in the day. Today my brother’s married to his prom date.

The other idea isn’t really mine, but is one the Faribault High School National Honor Society came up with last year. The NHS held a Prom Dress Drive, collecting and recycling prom dresses. You can read about that by clicking here. I know this has been done elsewhere and I consider it a fabulous alternative to spending hundreds of dollars on a new dress.

So there you go. Prom can cost less than the nation-wide average of $1,078 if you’re willing to think creatively, shop thrift stores and simply say “no” to your son/daughter.

IF YOU HAVE ADDITIONAL cost-saving suggestions or prom alternatives, please submit your ideas via a comment on this post. We can all learn from each other. Thank you to all who earlier submitted their great ideas.

FYI: Visa survey results were based on 1,000 telephone interviews conducted nation-wide between March 30 – April 1, 2012.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Am I the only mom who thinks prom is ridiculously expensive? April 24, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:12 AM
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HOW WOULD YOU react if you reached into your mailbox and pulled out a letter from the county attorney’s office addressed to the “parents of?”

My heart skipped a beat last Thursday morning when I saw my son’s name on that official envelope. Turns out it was simply a mass mailing endorsed by the Rice County Chemical Health Coalition’s Enforcement Team, Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, Faribault Community Action Team, Rice County Safe Communities Coalition and Rice County MADD.

But talk about momentarily scaring the heck out of me. Seriously.

With prom approaching this Saturday at the local high school, these organizations and the county attorney wanted to remind parents and students about safety and legal issues related to driving and to alcohol use. Message received.

If scaring parents by mailing the flier in an official Rice County Attorney’s envelope was the intended result, then they achieved that with me. But I would have preferred delivery of this important information in a less intimidating manner.

Now about prom…, my son isn’t attending. I’m glad. Why? Prom has become so overblown in importance and expense to the point of ridiculousness.

I can’t understand spending hundreds of dollars on clothes, hair styling, photos, flowers, food and transportation for a formal high school dance.

At Faribault High School, the upfront cost to attend prom is $175/couple. That covers transportation to a European style nightclub in St. Paul, a dinner (I think, although it is not listed on the official itinerary) and a dance.

Add to that the dress/tux, shoes and all the other expenses and you’re looking at hundreds of dollars. For prom. For one night.

Is this affordable for parents and students, in this economy, in any economy? Are too many students being priced out of prom? Won’t many of these same students soon hope for college scholarships at senior awards ceremonies and later borrow thousands of dollars for college?

How can parents and students justify hefty prom expenditures? This mother can’t. And, yes, I am financially conservative. None of my three children ever attended their high school proms. Unlike some moms who would be absolutely devastated by this (and, believe me, I know one mom who was frantic when her daughter didn’t have a date months before prom), I was/am not.

How do you feel about the cost of prom and the importance placed upon it? What changes could be implemented to make prom more affordable for anyone who wants to attend? Is too much importance placed on prom? I’d like to hear your opinions and ideas.

And just to assure you that I’m not totally anti-prom, I like to see teens have fun and build memories from their high school days. But within reason.

And, I do see the economic benefits with all that money parents and students are pumping into prom.

© Text copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Graphics were in the mailing my family received from the Rice County Attorney’s office.

 

Appreciating mom-and-pop businesses like Mutch Hardware June 27, 2011

Buildings across the street reflect in the windows of Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato where these signs hang on a front plate-glass window.

“Grass Seed and Fertilizer.”

“We cut glass and plexiglass.”

I didn’t need grass seed or fertilizer or any glass cut. Yet, the signage drew me to the storefront plate-glass window of the hardware store along Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato. How often do you see business signs like this with letters printed in near-perfect penmanship between two penciled ruler lines on white tagboard?

After I admired the simplicity of this advertising in a world of mass-produced, flashy, signage, I noticed the old screen door. That did it. I was smitten with this place, this Mutch Northside Hardware that, from the exterior, reminded me of the small town hardware stores of my youth.

You know, the kind of store where you can buy everything and anything. The place packed with merchandise from floor to ceiling, aisles narrow as a sidewalk crack. Nails and bolts jumbled in scarred cubbies. Belts dangling from hooks on pegboard. Wooden floors that creak.

Mutch Hardware is crammed with merchandise, some of it displayed in the window fronts.

An old ACE Hardware sign decorates the front door where a handwritten sign is posted listing store hours.

I could almost hear the vintage screen door slam shut behind me as I stood outside the closed hardware store, hands cupped around my eyes, peering inside. It was late Saturday afternoon and I was hours too late to step inside Mutch Hardware, much to my disappointment.

But that didn’t stop a flood of memories from washing over me. Memories of going to town with my dad, stopping at Joe Engel’s Hardware store on Vesta’s main street to pick up a few bolts or maybe a belt or something else for the farm.

My siblings and I had another reason for hitching a ride to the southwestern Minnesota hardware store with our dad. Joe Engel’s supplied our ammo—coiled rolls of red-perforated paper pocked with gun powder for our toy cap guns. This was the 1960s, and even though not politically-correct today, an era of playing “Cowboys and Indians.” I remember those days with a depth of fondness that I doubt today’s tech-oriented kids will ever experience.

I would like to take each of them inside a business like Mutch Hardware, where I expect helpful, personal service, care and friendliness accompany each purchase. Places like this seem rare in our fast-paced world of big box stores run by corporations in far away cities. Few mom-and-pop stores can survive in today’s economy. That is reality.

I’m not a prima donna; I shop chain stores as much as anyone. Yet when I see a business such as Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato, I take notice. I appreciate the hardworking men and women who, as independent business owners, still offer us a shopping option.

Outside Mutch Northside Hardware, a place reminiscent of bygone days.

DOES AN OLD-FASHIONED mom-and-pop type business like Mutch Northside Hardware exist in your community, or do you know of one somewhere? I’d like to hear. Tell me about it by submitting a comment.

This image of a section of Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato shows the following businesses, from left: Like-Nu-Cleaners, Christy's Cafe, Mutch Northside Hardware, Skillings & Associates, Dino's Gourmet Pizzeria, Craft-n-Floral Center, the U.S. Post Office, Frandsen Bank & Trust and Bobby Joe's Pub.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Looking for work in a (still) challenging economy May 24, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:44 AM
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Back in the day, transients rode the rails looking for work.

IS THE ECONOMY IMPROVING? Maybe. Maybe not. That depends on whom you ask and on what day.

Several months ago I would have said, “Yeah, I think the economy is starting to look up.” More “Help wanted” ads were publishing in my local daily newspaper. I sensed an overall mood of optimism in the media and among people in general. It simply seemed to me that our economic situation was improving, if ever so slightly.

But then, boom, we were socked with outrageous prices at the gas pump and in the grocery store and I felt like we’d been punched, like we’d all been knocked to the mat. Again.

Yet, even though higher prices are hitting my family’s pocketbook, we aren’t struggling to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to pay the bills.

Not like some many people.

A knock on my door several days ago showed me the personal side of a dire economy. A man in his late 40s asked if he could mow my lawn. I declined his request, explaining that I planned to mow the yard that afternoon.

“Lookin’ for work?” I inquired before he nodded his head and walked away to the next house with an overgrown lawn.

I now regret that ridiculous question. Clearly he was seeking work or he wouldn’t have asked to mow my lawn. I also regret that I didn’t take the time to step outside, sit down on my front steps and listen to his story. I wonder what he would have told me.

Just like I wonder about the carpenter who lives nearby and has twice asked about working for me. When we met in January, I was shoveling snow and he was walking past my house in shirt sleeves. I told him he should be wearing a jacket. He brushed off my motherly concern and said he was headed to my neighbor’s place just up the hill.

We chatted for awhile and he commented on a pile of demolition debris lining the edge of the driveway. We had recently begun a home improvement project. He wondered whether I had any carpentry needs. I told him about a closet I planned for an upstairs bedroom, but I didn’t hire him.

Recently that same unemployed carpenter approached my husband to inquire again about work and that closet project. I admire his determination. Here is a man who needs a job and he’s not afraid to seek it out. (I sometimes wish I had hired him for another home improvement project which is now dragging into its sixth month.)

These two unemployed men remind me of the stories my Grandma Ida told me of hobos riding the rails, looking for work in the farm fields of southwestern Minnesota back in the day. If I recall correctly, these transients occasionally helped on my grandparents’ farm.

These were men down on their luck, in need of good, honest, hard work.

Although I am way too young to have lived through The Great Depression, I have those stories impressed upon me by a grandma who understood the value of hard work and “making do.”

My own parents also worked hard, lived within their means and set an example of being content with whatever you have. I’ve tried to live that way too and pass along to my children that family, faith, love and happiness are more important than material possessions.

Yet, we all need an income to pay the bills. In the 27 years I’ve lived in my Faribault home, I’ve never had local strangers approach me, looking for work. Until this year.

That’s as strong a statement as any about the challenging state of our current economy.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? How are you/your family handling this current challenging economy? Have you changed your lifestyle, your spending? Have you had unemployed individuals come to your door looking for work?

What’s your take on the current state of the economy?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Pancakes for paper May 13, 2011

MY KNEE JERK REACTION went something like this: I pay taxes and now the school is hosting a pancake breakfast to buy “needed supplies.”

Because things aren’t always as they seem, I called Faribault High School to inquire about the Pancake Breakfast flier which was mailed to me on Thursday along with my son’s mid-quarter grades and information about ordering a $75 high school yearbook.

When the woman who answered the phone couldn’t help, she transferred me to Assistant Principal Dennis Germann’s voicemail. He explained everything to me in two return phone calls and now I feel much better and more informed.

Faribault Masonic Lodge #9 and Faribault Eagles Club #1460 are teaming up to raise monies for school supplies for students at FHS. Notebooks, inexpensive calculators, paper, project supplies, etc. will be given to students who can’t afford to purchase those basics, Germann told me. He added that nearly 50 percent of FHS students qualify for free or reduced school lunches. Translate that into families that could use some extra help with school expenses. The United Way has provided some assistance in the past with school supplies.

Germann welcomes the monies that will be raised at the Sunday, May 15, Pancake Breakfast from 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. at the Faribault Eagles Club. Cost of the breakfast, which includes all you can eat pancakes with a serving of sausage and eggs and milk, coffee or juice, is $7 for adults, $5 for students and free for those five and under.

It’s the first time apparently that the high school has been selected as the recipient of this Pancake Breakfast fundraiser. That’s why the flier caught me by surprise and I really didn’t understand the definition of “needed supplies.”

As the parent of a high schooler, and two FHS graduates, I’m happy to see secondary students benefiting from a fundraiser like this. Typically the focus is on elementary age kids. I know how quickly costs add up to buy school supplies for a teen. Last year, if I remember correctly, I forked out $100 for some fancy schmancy calculator my son needed for a math class. Students won’t get fancy calculators like that through this program (I think the school has some available to borrow). But at least they’ll get basic school supplies.

So much has changed in the decades since I graduated from high school and we really only needed 3-subject notebooks, pens, pencils, folders and loose leaf paper.

Now it’s way beyond paper, to needing computers and internet access at home. I bet many families out there can’t afford internet service. Thankfully free internet is available at the public library. But it isn’t always easy for students to get there when they need to do online research.

I wonder also about the cost of class field trips, if some students can’t afford even basic school supplies. I recently wrote a $27 check for my son to go on a field trip to the Science Museum to view the King Tut exhibit. I gave him another $15 for lunch, which even he told me was expensive. How do families with already stretched budgets manage these additional costs?

We shouldn’t need pancake breakfast fundraisers to supplement the cost of education. But we all know times are tough. So thanks, Eagles and Masons, for doing your part to organize this event that will help Faribault families.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Prom economics 101: Lessons in giving March 30, 2011

The 1984 formal I donated to the FHS NHS Prom Dress Drive .

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO my husband stuffed a 1984 lavender formal into the back seat of our car and delivered it to Faribault High School. (I was sick that day or I would have dropped off the old bridesmaid’s dress myself.)

He was donating my dress, which has hung in an upstairs closet for decades, to the FHS National Honor Society’s first-ever Prom Dress Drive.

Naturally, I couldn’t allow this event to pass without asking whether a local high school student will wear “my” dress to the April 30 FHS prom. I also wanted to know how the drive went.

Although several young women tried on my lavender formal and one in particular with sewing abilities considered changing it up, no one bought it, says NHS co-advisor and FHS English language arts instructor Rachael Hoffman.

However, Hoffman, who is also the FHS theater wardrobe director, says she’s keeping my cast-off for possible use in future FHS theatrical productions.

Of 80 – 85 donated dresses, about 15 were sold with prices ranging from $2 – $50 and averaging around $20. Donations included vintage to current fashionable dresses, a few with price tags still attached. Shoes and jewelry were also contributed.

Hoffman, while grateful for the quantity of dresses donated, was hoping for more shoppers. Yet her enthusiasm for the project and its purpose cannot be quelled.

I’ll let her share a story that nearly moved me to tears. “I was overjoyed to hear a student say that she wouldn’t have to order a dress to fit her size this year since she found one at our drive,” Hoffman writes in an e-mail. “You could see on her face that she felt pretty and I really felt that made the drive worth it.

I also think that some of the NHS students who worked at the drive with me got to put themselves in other students’ shoes for a moment. It was a valuable experience.”

Lessons like that can’t be taught in a classroom.

While the project was a fundraiser for the NHS (the group raised about $400), Hoffman says more importantly that it was a service to the students and the community during difficult economic times. “It was my personal hope that a student who could not afford a dress would come and buy one. We did, in fact, have a few students who showed up with this purpose. It was a wonderful reward.”

Lessons like that can’t be taught in a classroom.

Hoffman clearly understands her students. “As a teacher at FHS, I know that many of these young people work jobs not merely for themselves but to contribute to their families in these hard times, or to save for college,” this astute educator observes. “We really wanted to serve our community in this way. Prom is a special occasion and many families cannot afford ‘extras’ right now. We wanted to make this less of a stressor on normal working families and more of an event to look forward to for the students.”

No one left the Prom Dress Drive without a dress, if they wanted one, Hoffman says. Prices were negotiable and most donors told organizers to give away their dresses (if they could not sell them) to anyone who needed a formal.

Lessons like that in giving from the heart can’t be taught in a classroom.

Details on the front of a lovely formal that also hangs in my closet and which my eldest wore in a friend's wedding. It would make a lovely prom dress, but it wasn't mine to give. Maybe next year?

THE GIVING DIDN’T END in Faribault. Extra Prom Dress Drive formals which won’t be utilized locally were donated to Total Care Cleaners. The south metro business sells the dresses for $10 to any prom-goer who needs one. Total Care also gives away $10 in dry cleaning services for each donated dress.

“They were so appreciative of the donations and excited to give more students this option for a prom dress,” says Julie Petersen, a co-advisor for Faribault’s NHS and a FHS Spanish instructor. “The owner said that many of the girls he helps would not be able to go to prom if not for the dresses he gets donated.”

That economic reality extends nationwide. At donatemydress.org, a national network connecting local dress drive organizations across the country, you’ll find a state-by-state listing of groups sponsoring these dress projects. Scroll to Minnesota and you can link to five metro area formal dress drives—Ever After Gowns, Operation Glass Slipper and The Paperbag Princess—and the two businesses-based projects at Vista Images and Total Care Cleaners.

I expect there are other Minnesota dress drives not listed on this website.

At least one of the prom projects, South St. Paul-based The Paperbag Princess, also accepts suits. Some take accessories too. Ever After Gowns will even accept spa products and new makeup.

I commend groups like the FHS National Honor Society for undertaking a drive like this which offers affordable prom attire to young women. NHS members seem to have benefited from the project, in lessons learned, as much as the young women who found prom formals.

Now, if only the cost of attending the FHS prom—$175 per couple for the event to be held at a South Saint Paul night club—would be more affordable…

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling