Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Giving blood during COVID-19 June 18, 2020

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I’VE NEVER GIVEN MUCH THOUGHT to donating blood through the American Red Cross. It’s just something I’ve done, off and on, for years, after finally following Randy’s lead. I discovered that donating was easy. Drink plenty of fluids on donation day. Show up, healthy, at the appointed time with my RapidPass health screening paperwork in hand, go through a brief pre-donation physical screening and then move on to the table to start the donation process.

But the familiar routine of giving blood all changed with COVID-19. Suddenly, I thought twice about donating. Did I really want to do this in the middle of a global pandemic? Donating blood requires being up close with those screening and drawing your blood. But then I decided I needed to trust that all necessary precautions would be taken to keep me safe. They were.

I arrived masked, as required. Just like everyone at the community center donation site. My temperature was checked twice, once before I even entered. Tables were widely spaced in the former gymnasium. The foam form I squeezed during donation was covered. And only one worker tended to me, unlike in the past. Or, I should qualify, a sole Red Cross employee took me to the point of inserting the needle into my vein. It was then that everything changed. And it had nothing to do with COVID-19. Pain shot through my arm. Pain so intense that I had to muffle my outburst. I don’t recall my exact words. But they were something like, “Either you need to fix this or take this needle out.”

Let me assure you that I have a high threshold for pain having broken two bones, suffered from severe osteoarthritis in my hip and undergone eight surgeries in my lifetime. Blood and needles don’t scare me. But sharp pain like this, that bothered me. The supervisor took charge, professionally assessing that the needle likely needed to be pushed deeper into my vein. She made the adjustment and the pain eased to soreness. The likely cause of the problem, she explained, was scar tissue build-up on the vein.

My blood flowed freely into the bag. Soon I was done and sent to the refreshment table for juice and/or water and individually-packaged snacks. Then I was on my way, my first blood donation during a global pandemic successfully completed. Nothing to it. I considered that the new precautions put in place likely should always have been part of Red Cross protocol.


From The Gaylord Hub article.


For blood donors in one Minnesota small town, though, the changes due to COVID-19 reached beyond masking, social-distancing, more screening, etc. According to an article in the June 11 issue of the weekly, The Gaylord Hub, a recent blood drive in Gaylord “proved challenging.” And that wasn’t only because of deferrals and no-shows. The newspaper story states that “Gaylord coordinators were unable to serve the usual sandwiches, chips, pickles and beer.” Yes, you read that right. Beer. I’ll allow you to decide whether drinking beer right after giving blood is a good idea.


My blood donation card, now filled. I recently received a new one in the mail. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


One new idea announced this week seems like a really good one. Starting June 15 and at least through the summer, all blood donations will be tested for COVID-19 antibodies. Positive results indicate the donor may have had previous exposure to the virus and could thereby be eligible for the Convalescent Plasma Donation Program designed to help those battling COVID-19. That screening makes sense and is just one more way donors can help others. So, next time I give blood, I’ll learn whether the crud I experienced at Christmas with a temp, fatigue, feeling down and out, and a severe cough that lingered for weeks was just a routine seasonal virus. Or more.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Speaking up against prejudice in my Minnesota community April 28, 2014

AWHILE AGO, I DECIDED I would no longer remain silent.

And Saturday afternoon, while purchasing a Betsy Bowen print and greeting cards at the Northfield Senior Center thrift store, Used A Bit Shoppe, I spoke up.

While I waited for my framed print to be wrapped in newspaper, I chatted with the friendly woman behind the counter. We talked about the spinning glasstop table crafted from three monkey statues—“hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”—and the other unique recycled merchandise in this jam-packed shoppe.

I’d never been here, I told her, didn’t even know that this place existed, that I didn’t live in Northfield. The business had moved not all that long ago, she said, to this larger location.

About that time a hulk of a man wedged in beside me and interrupted, adding that he remembered the old store, that he used to live in Northfield and now lived in neighboring Faribault.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

But he wanted to return to Northfield, he said, “because of all the Somalis in Faribault.” Disdain colored his words.

He’d just said the wrong thing to me.

I turned, looked him in the eye, and told him I did not appreciate his disrespect for Somali people.

That set him off. I can’t recall every word spoken, but I do remember the bit about his grandmother being a war bride and speaking seven languages. Not once did he explain why he so disliked Somalis. Not that an explanation would have mattered.

As his agitation grew, I began to feel threatened.

“Sir, I don’t want to argue with you,” I said, attempting to diffuse the situation. “I’m just sharing my opinion.”

“I don’t like you forcing your opinion on me,” he responded, ever-growing anger tinging his voice. “When they (Somalis) respect me, I will respect them.”

He finally walked away, edging toward a cluster of other shoppers, including my husband, who’d overheard bits of the mostly one-sided conversation.

I turned back to the elderly clerk, picked up the four dollars and some odd cents change she’d laid on the counter.

“Welcome to Northfield,” I said. “Oh, that’s right, he’s from Faribault. I feel sorry for people like him who cannot respect others.”

Then I exited this shoppe where a “speak no evil” monkey hunches with a hand clamped across his mouth.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


My joyful experience ringing bells for the Salvation Army on a bitterly cold Minnesota day December 9, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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SNUGGED IN A FLANNEL SHIRT and jeans, layered under my husband’s insulated coveralls and sweatshirt, and with wool socks, insulated winter boots and mittens covering my extremities and a festive hat adding a holiday flair, I reported to my post at noon Saturday to ring bells for the Salvation Army.

Randy snapped this photo of me upon our return home from ringing bells. One donor suggested we receive "hazard pay" for ringing on such a bitterly cold day. There's no pay; this is a volunteer opportunity.

Randy snapped this photo of me upon our return home. One donor joked that we should receive “hazard pay” for ringing bells on such a bitterly cold day. This was a volunteer “job.”

The temperature hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18 Celsius) in Faribault as I tied on my red apron, secured a scarf around my neck (I would add a second later) and took over bell ringing duties from my friend Barb. My husband, Randy, replaced her husband, Gary.

The temperature at 11 a.m. Saturday in Faribault, just an hour before Randy and I began ringing bells.

The temperature at 11 a.m. Saturday in Faribault, just an hour before Randy and I began ringing bells.

For the next two hours, in bitter cold temperatures which challenged even the hardiest of life-long Minnesotans like us, we greeted visitors at the Walmart south entrance.

Now you might think I would never again want to ring bells given my fingers and toes and cheeks got uncomfortably cold. At one point, per friend and north Walmart bell ringer Virgil’s suggestion, I retreated to the women’s bathroom to warm my icy red fingers under the hand air dryer. Heat never felt so good.

Gary and Barb work the 10 a.m. to noon bell-ringing shift at Walmart south.

Gary and Barb work the 10 a.m. to noon bell-ringing shift at Walmart south.

I will ring bells again, though.

When my cheeks started hurting and flaming red, I added a second scarf.

When my cheeks started hurting and flaming red, I added a second scarf.

I will ring bells again because the temporary discomfort I experienced is nothing compared to the challenges faced by those who benefit from Salvation Army services. Funds help those in emergency situations cover gas, housing, medical and other expenses. Donations also finance the “Shop with a Cop” program assisting children in need.

Nearly 90 percent of the monies dropped into kettles in Rice County stay in the county. This year the county chapter hopes to raise $50,000. In 2012, nearly $40,000 were raised, which was not enough to meet local needs.

Gary and Barb welcomed a stranger's cups of coffee.

Gary and Barb, an hour into their two-hour shift, were getting cold, but still smiling.

To be a small part of the Salvation Army’s mission, by giving two hours of my time, proved humbling and rewarding. Friend Virgil rang for 1.50 shifts while Linda, another ringer from my church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault, pulled a double shift. That’s four hours. Outside. In the bitter cold.

Two girls give to the Salvation Army on Gary and Barb's shift.

Two girls give to the Salvation Army on Gary and Barb’s shift.

I was especially moved by the young parents who are teaching their children the joy of giving. Several times I watched as youngsters barely tall enough to reach the kettle dropped coins into the slot, sometimes spilling the change onto the sidewalk. We rewarded 14 youngsters with candy canes for their generosity.

One particular boy, about nine, exuded extra energetic enthusiasm. “Have a good day!” he shouted to us after placing money in the kettle.

Moments like that are priceless as is the story one mother shared while her little boy put coins in the bucket. They had seen a Toys for Tots television ad, she said. He then wanted to donate a toy, if he could get one for himself, too. I thanked this mom for teaching her son about giving at such a young age.

Randy and I were also the recipients of gratitude. Numerous donors thanked us for ringing bells, especially on such a cold day. “Bless your heart,” one woman said. Those three words most assuredly warmed my heart.

And then, near the end of our two-hour shift, another woman exiting Walmart handed me two packs of chemical hand warmers to slip inside our mittens and gloves. I was incredibly moved by her thoughtfulness.

What a great mission as noted on the sign,

What a great mission as noted on the sign: “Sharing is caring…need knows no season…God bless you.”

In the previous shift, another stranger purchased coffee for Gary and Barb and doughnuts for Virgil and Linda. Again, such kindness.

When our shift ended, we handed our bells and aprons and hand warmers, and the remaining 22 candy canes reserved for kids, over to our friend Leann. She was ringing the Salvation Army bell with joyful enthusiasm as we walked away.

I learned later that Virgil retrieved his wife’s boots from his car for Leann, whose boots weren’t warm enough. Leann distributed 14 candy canes to giving children, just like us, then passed the remaining four treats to fourth-shift bell ringer, Dennis.

I asked Leann if she’d had any particularly memorable moments and she shared how a teen, who’d just purchased gifts and wrapping paper, paused to pull bills from his pocket and donate. Not only that, he told her how happy he was to give.

That, my friends, represents the true spirit of charitable giving.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


What I’ve learned about shoplifters November 29, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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VanillaI’VE HAD SOME EXPERIENCE with shoplifting. Not that I ever shoplifted. But some 30 years ago, when I worked at a local grocery store, a customer stole a bottle of vanilla as she passed through my check out lane.

The manager directed me and the suspect to the office to wait for the police. There I had to pat down the woman, a duty which to this day did not seem mine to perform. Today I would refuse to do so.

That initial encounter, though, erased any preconceived stereotype of shoplifters. This was an ordinary looking young woman, not someone who appeared down and out and in desperate need of stuffing vanilla, of all things, under her shirt. She could have been your sister.

Not long after, another customer tried to steal groceries via distraction. She engaged me in friendly conversation while I punched the prices of food, pulled from her cart, into the cash register. (This was in the days before bar codes.) “Pulled from her cart” are the key words here. She purposely failed to place the merchandise stashed under her cart onto the conveyor belt. The store manager, or maybe it was the security guy, noticed. Busted.

I learned two more key lessons about shoplifters. Always check under the grocery cart. And don’t be fooled by a friendly customer.

Fast forward three decades. My husband and I are shopping at Walmart in Faribault for, among other items, charcoal filters. When Randy finally locates the right number to match our room air purifier, he opens the box to assure the proper fit.

But there is no four-pack of filters inside. Rather, Randy finds two hard plastic shells in the shape of pliers. Except the pliers are missing. And so are the filters.

Who does this anyway?

And how did the thief manage to open that hard-as-steel clear plastic packaging right there in the aisle of Walmart without getting caught? Wedging open those molded casings is no easy feat, even in the comfort of your home.

I felt it my duty to report the theft to an associate in the hardware and paint department. He expressed no surprise at the method of stealing. “Happens all the time,” he said.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Have you had any experience with shoplifters or shoplifted merchandise?

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Why NDSU research into growing human bones interests me June 28, 2013

File photo from June of the main entrance to North Dakota State University in Fargo.

File photo from June 2012 shows the main entrance to North Dakota State University in Fargo.

FOR THE MOST PART, I ignore the mass emails sent by whomever, including North Dakota State University, where my son attended his first year of college. He’s transferring to Tufts University in Medford, MA., outside of Boston, this fall.

But this head in a recent NDSU Alumni (I’m not an NDSU alumni) mailing caught my attention:

Researchers Coax Clays to Make Human Bone: Weak bones, broken bones, damaged bones, arthritic bones. Researchers at North Dakota State University, Fargo, are making strides in tissue engineering, designing scaffolds that may lead to ways to regenerate bone.

Arthritic bone.

Up until some seven years ago, I’d never considered arthritic bone, not even thought about arthritis or its debilitating impact on the body and spirit and on mobility.

But then, at age 48 ½, I developed back and hip pain which, initially diagnosed as a pinched sciatic nerve, was eventually correctly diagnosed as arthritis in my right hip. For 2 ½ years I lived with the constant pain until near immobility and an inability to tolerate the pain led me to undergo total right hip replacement five years ago. Given my age, 51, I wanted to put off the surgery as long as possible.

I likely will outlive my hip, which has a life expectancy of 15 – 20 years. That means hip surgery. Again. And that scares the heck out of me because I will be much older, the recovery more challenging.

When I read news about research like that being conducted at NDSU, I am encouraged—hopeful for a better alternative to the current implant system. There have been too many recalls on hip implants. Thus far, mine has not been among them. But pity those people who need to have their defective implants removed and replaced.

To the NDSU researchers who created the system of “3-D mesh scaffold composed of degradable materials compatible to human tissue” in which “cells generate bone and the scaffold deteriorates,” thank you for working on this project.

Do you think you could perfect the process and have it on the market in 10 years?

FYI: Learn more about this NDSU research project by clicking here.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling