Winona Neighbors Helping Neighbors delivers Thanksgiving meals

Matthew Drewry, Features Editor

The Winona Neighbors Helping Neighbors organization facilitated Thanksgiving food donations for Winona residents on Wednesday, Nov. 25. 

The event, led by Winona State University professor of communication studies Amy Hermodson and Director of Community Involvement Kendra Weber, helped provide food for nearly 150 residents in need.

Winona Neighbors Helping Neighbors collaborated with Perkins and Hy-Vee as well to help connect households in need with food-donor households.

Weber said the Thanksgiving food drive was created in response to concerns about the lack of free Thanksgiving dinners due to COVID-19.

“We actually had a neighbor reach out to us a week or so ago worried about Thanksgiving meals and that all of the places that normally do [Thanksgiving meals], like the free Thanksgiving dinners, churches, East rec. center. Nobody is doing those this year,” Weber said.So, she wanted to know if we might be able to connect people willing to cook a meal with those that needed it now.”

Lynn Rockwell, the neighbor who originally reached out, also helped to provide food for the event. 

Rockwell said her inspiration for the idea was a simple one.

“How could we as a family help out in the community?” Rockwell said. “Nobody should spend any day, especially Thanksgiving, without a meal.” 

Rockwell said there was great demand for Thanksgiving meals. 

“There was a whole community need that existed,” Rockwell said.

Rockwell said her experience changed what Thanksgiving meant to her.

“It brought a new meaning to [Thanksgiving]. The need in the community has changed my perspective a lot.” Rockwell said. “[The event] really shed an intense light on what Thanksgiving should mean.”

Rockwell connected with Neighbors Helping Neighbors to share her love of cooking that could benefit another family in Winona. 

Weber said Rockwell’s dessert contributions were significant. 

“She’s making these little cheesecakes to go with all of the meals that are being donated by a home cook, and then also all of the ones that are going to students. It’s like 75, cheesecakes,” Weber said.

Weber and Hermodson created and distributed a form for community members to request and donate food. They received responses from a variety of families and individuals throughout the community. 

“We had over 42 people request food or meals, everything from just individual [meals], including some Winona State students, up to, I think the biggest family we have, is nine people,” Weber said. “And then we had a handful, probably about a dozen community members, that were willing to cook a meal and deliver it to the family and need.”

Weber said most of the support was from monetary donations towards meals cooked at Perkins and Hy-Vee.

“We had a whole lot of people donate money and that’s really where the big thing comes in, so we were able to match up volunteers with folks that needed meals,” Weber said. “We’re working with both Perkins and Hy-Vee and those meals will be paid for through Winona Neighbors Helping Neighbors.”

Winona State’s Student Senate previously donated money to Neighbors Helping Neighbors, which was applied towards student meals.

“We’re actually using that money to cover all of the meals for students who requested them,” Weber said.

Hermodson said that on top of food insecurity during the holidays, loneliness is one of the biggest challenges during COVID.

“When you find yourself in a situation like 2020 where we have everything from the quarantining kinds of needs to different kinds of political tensions and all kinds of things,” Hermodson said. “What I have seen happen to an awful lot of people is that they find themselves alone, and it’s never good to have somebody find themselves alone.” 

Hermodson said this challenge of isolation compounds with the holidays.

“I’ve talked to a lot of students, I’ve talked to a lot of community members. I’ve talked to a lot of my friends who are saying to me, “Amy, this is the first time I have not spent the holidays with friends or family and I’m going to be by myself,””  Hermodson said. “And I think that that is something that if you’ve never had that experience before, it can be very sad. It can be something that you grieve and it can be very lonely.”

Hermodson discussed how the Thanksgiving event helps to combat isolation. 

“When I was approached on the Neighbors page with this idea of providing a meal, just to be able to say to somebody, “you’re not alone, you haven’t been forgotten”, and “Here’s a connection to another human being that was important,” Hermodson said.

According to Hermodson, Neighbors Helping Neighbors was born out of sense of community and that moderating their webpage is incredibly rewarding.

“I go in every single day and it gives me so much hope that we have so many people in our community who are so willing to help each other,” Hermodson said. “I don’t have to tell anybody that a pandemic is really, really hard. But [Neighbors Helping Neighbors] is this sanctuary space where people freely give [to] other people, where people get their needs met, where real community is being established and we’re learning how to be civil and good to each other on that page.”

Kendra Weber echoed a similar sentiment about the hope the webpage brings her.

“I think I’d be in a different headspace right now if I hadn’t been involved in this group because so much, especially online, is so negative and so divisive that then we only see our own little role, right? So, if I didn’t know that all this amazing stuff was happening in the community,I don’t know if I’d be  as positive and optimistic,” Weber said. “And so it’s been good therapy, I guess, for me personally.”

Both Weber and Rockwell discussed the necessity of a similar event for Christmas. 

“Folks have already asked us about the Christmas holiday or late December holidays,” Weber said.

“There’s still gonna be a need in the community,” Rockwell said.