Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Kids helping kids celebrate on the prairie & more January 29, 2014

A CANDLE-TOPPED CAKE and a small toy may not seem like much to celebrate a birthday.

But to a child in need, both mean a great deal.

The birthday cake booklet from my childhood that Bernie found on eBay.

The booklet from which my siblings and I chose our birthday cake designs.

I understand. Growing up in a poor farm family on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, I did not receive gifts from my parents on my birthday. They had no money for such extras. Rather, my mom pulled out her 1959 General Foods Corporation’s Baker’s Coconut Animal Cut-Up Cake booklet so I could choose a design for my birthday cake.

My second birthday and the clown cake my mom made for me.

Me with the clown cake my mom made for my second birthday.

With those birthday memories on my mind, I was pleased to read Tuesday of a community service project undertaken by the Class of 2019 at Westbrook-Walnut Grove Public Schools, 45 minutes to the south of my hometown of Vesta.

Students are assembling birthday bags for Mary and Martha’s Pantry, a Westbrook-based food shelf, according to information in the January 28 issue of the Westbrook/Walnut Grove Charger Report on the school website.


Birthday gift bags will include cake mixes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The gift bags will include a cake mix, frosting, candles, a Happy Birthday banner and a small toy. How sweet is that? I love to learn about kids doing good.


SOME 170 MILES to the north and east in the Twin Cities metro, Eagan-based Cheerful Givers has provided birthday gift bags to 700,000-plus children during the past 20 years.

The non-profit’s mission is to “provide toy-filled gift bags to food shelves and shelters so that parents living in poverty can give their child a birthday gift. We believe this simple gesture boosts self-esteem, enhances self-worth, and strengthens bonds in families.”

And might I add, these bags filled with 10 items like books, plush toys, puzzles, stickers and more, simply make a child happy.

Two months from today, on Saturday, March 29, Cheerful Givers is celebrating its 20th birthday with “The Great Minnesota Birthday Party” in the Sear’s Court at the Mall of America. The goal of the 1 – 3 p.m. event is to raise $20,0000 and “to spread awareness of the need for all kids to be recognized with a gift on their birthday.”


Back on the prairie, far from the big city, teens at Westbrook-Walnut Grove Public Schools aren’t planning a fundraiser for the Mary and Martha’s Pantry birthday bags. Rather, they are dipping in to their own funds (or those of their parents and others) to purchase gift bag items. And in the process, they are learning, in my opinion, that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”


FYI: To learn more about the W-WG school project, click here and see #13 in the Charger report.

To learn more about Eagan-based Cheerful Givers, click here.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The generous gift of a St. Paul woman to a rural Minnesota food shelf January 6, 2012

TODAY I’M TREATING YOU to a gem of a story published yesterday in a weekly community newspaper, The Gaylord Hub.

It’s an inspiring and uplifting story of a St. Paul woman who purposely sought out a rural food shelf as the recipient of a Christmas gift. And a mighty generous one from someone with apparently no connection to Gaylord, a southern Minnesota Sibley County seat town of around 2,300.

Hub officer manager and bookkeeper Elizabeth Reishus shares the tale of generosity in her January 5 “The Word From High Avenue” column as shared with her by Yvonne O’Brien of Sibley County Food Share, Inc.

Writes Reishus:

A woman from St. Paul had called Second Harvest food bank to ask for a list of rural food shelves. Second Harvest was not able to give her that information, but did give her O’Brien’s phone number.

The woman then called O’Brien and asked questions about the food shelf. What percent of families served were minorities? Is the need higher in the summer? What kinds of resources does your food shelf have to rely on for donations?

O’Brien explained that about 40 percent of clients at the food shelf are people of a minority. The need for help increases in the summer when seasonal workers arrive to work at area farms and other agriculture-related jobs. She also explained that unlike bigger towns and cities, we do not have the big chain stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, Cub or Cash Wise that donate food. The Sibley County Food Shelf is maintained through the generosity of area people and some grant money, O’Brien explained.

The St. Paul woman said she would like to send a donation to the food shelf. O’Brien gave the woman the mailing address for donations and expected to receive a check for about $50. She was pleasantly surprised to find that the donation check was for 10 times that amount. The generous mystery woman gave $500 to the Sibley County Food Shelf.

How’s that for Minnesota Nice and for thinking beyond the metro?

Consider the effort this mystery woman took to find just the right place for her $500 donation. What motivated her to seek out a rural food shelf, to ask those specific questions about minorities, to give that much money to a single food shelf?

I’d never really thought, prior to reading Reishus’ column, how small-town food banks typically don’t receive food donations from chain stores, relying instead primarily on the generosity of locals.

So thank you to that woman from St. Paul for thinking beyond the metro area of the need in rural Minnesota and for blessing Sibley County Food Share with $500.

She offers us much food for thought.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Sibley County Food Share, click here.


Some fine examples of giving in rural Minnesota April 5, 2011

WHEN I READ through the March 31 edition of The Gaylord Hub, a rural Minnesota weekly newspaper where I worked from 1978 – 1980, something caught my eye.

The 10-page paper was packed with stories about community members helping one another. The quantity of articles impressed me enough to write this post, to emphasize to you that even during these challenging times, Minnesotans are reaching out to one another.

These are stories we need to read among the hard news stories of floods and earthquakes, wars and suicide bombers, rising gas prices and falling property values, the news that causes us to ask, “What is this world coming to?”

The articles I read reaffirm that among all the bad in the world, plenty of good still exists. And often, young people are leading the way to assist those in need.

In Gaylord, the Sibley East Junior High Student Council recently raised $600 for the Sibley County Food Shelf. Likewise, the Gaylord Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, leaders and parents collected 1,032 pounds of food and $70.65 for the county food shelf in a one-day drive.

Students from Sibley East Elementary Schools in Gaylord and Arlington raised $10,431.32 in the Pennies for Patients fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, placing in the top 25 among 473 participating schools. How’s that for a small school (between 200 – 499 students) in rural Minnesota?

The adults in the Gaylord area aren’t sitting idly by watching the younger generation pursue charitable giving.

The winner in a local drawing chose Sibley County Food Share, Inc., as the recipient of a $2,500 donation from the Monsanto Fund.

Sertomans, at their weekly meeting, discussed plans for a benefit to help the Lindemann family as their daughter, Paisley, battles cancer.

The newspaper also published a story about an education memorial fund established for Kaylee and Gavin, the young children of Michael Struck, a Minnesota Department of Transportation worker who died after his backhoe was swept away recently in flood waters.

And then, in a front page article, readers learned that $63,000 in donations have been made to Gaylord’s new aquatic center. Donations will be used to buy amenities (play features) for the pool. All 69 donors are listed in an ad published on page 5.

This is just an observation I’ve made over the years—and I think it’s an accurate one—but residents of small towns are often willing to open their pocketbooks to projects that in larger cities would be funded with taxpayer dollars. Why? I think community pride and ownership and the deep personal connections small town residents have to one another prompt such generosity.

Finally, the last philanthropic piece of news was buried deep in a front page article titled “Fire Department receives FEMA grant.” After explaining that the local department has received a nearly $60,000 grant to purchase firefighting equipment, the reporter writes about the annual firemen’s banquet.

And that is where I found this little gem: “Also recognized for their years of service was the ‘kitchen crew’ which helps serve a highly-touted ham dinner. Jim Huffman and Don Pinske have each helped serve the banquet meal for more than 60 years.”

Sixty years. Now that’s dedication and an outstanding example of selfless giving back to the community.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling