By Karla Bauer
Burnsville Family Resource Center Coordinator

Twelve-year-old Miya had one wish this holiday season: to have her own guitar. Miya’s parents were not in a financial position where they could afford the luxury of buying holiday presents for their two children, let alone an expensive gift like a guitar.

They signed up for 360 Communities’ Armful of Love holiday gift program in hopes that their children could experience the joy of opening presents this year. Nobody could have predicted the “magic” of Armful of Love, but 360 Communities would match them with a sponsor family that had an acoustic guitar that was perfect for their daughter. Miya’s dream of playing the guitar would come true. She is just one of 2,600 children whose wishes were fulfilled by strangers this holiday season through this program. More than 100 Armful of Love volunteers and staff served over 1,000 families, or a total of about 4,100 individuals.

Many families in Dakota County struggle throughout the year to put food on the table or pay their bills. The holiday season adds another layer of stress for parents. Armful of Love helps alleviate this burden for families in need and offers an opportunity for them to learn more about services available through 360 Communities. The program also gives volunteers and sponsors a way to engage with neighbors in a meaningful way.

In my work as coordinator of 360 Communities’ Burnsville Family Resource Center, I see the importance in how these human connections play out every day, not just during the holiday season. There are volunteers in the resource center and food shelf that give of their time and talents for a variety of reasons. Some are seeking extra meaning in their lives, some are retired and want to keep busy, some are seeking work experience, and more. All of them are moved by the experience of supporting families in need.

More than 30,000 people are living in poverty in Dakota County. That statistic becomes real for anyone who has spent time in our resource center and sees the faces of those who need help. 360 Communities’ network of five food shelves and two family resource centers help 13,500 individuals each year. These are people that come from all walks of life and have unique stories that illustrate one underlying truth: Anyone can be hit with a hardship that puts them in crisis.

Take Fran and Steven for example. They were in their early 70s and had built a successful life with a tool making company. Then Steven was diagnosed with cancer. He became so ill his children flew home to be by his bedside to say their good-byes. Fortunately, he rallied and while he continued treatment, his son Michael ran the family business. The medical bills were mounting, Steven was battling his cancer with his family’s support, and that is when tragedy struck. Michael died suddenly and they had to close their business. Now with only Social Security income, Fran and Steven were facing foreclosure on their home, and the family was in deep crisis. They came to us for food support to help them through a period in their lives that they never anticipated.

The amazing thing is that they have maintained a sense of humor. “Aren’t we the sob story of the week!” Steven said with a laugh. The couple is grounded in the fact that they at least have each other and are grateful for the support of 360 Communities. Steven says that if he ever comes into money again, he is going to give back to 360 Communities to support other families in need. Others who come to 360 Communities are trying to find their path to self-sufficiency for the first time.

Kelly was an exotic dancer who wanted to begin a new life. Out of desperation, she chose that path for a short period of time so that she could support her small children. Leaving this life created barriers and she struggled to make ends meet for her family. Finding a regular job that paid her bills was difficult when trying to explain that part of her employment history. Early this winter, she came into our resource center for a food appointment. One of our volunteers, Jana, noticed that she did not have a coat and looked cold.  When she asked Kelly about her coat, she told her she couldn’t afford one. The volunteer told me about this conversation and I was able to secure funds to purchase her a winter coat. When Jana gave Kelly the news, she burst into tears, so grateful that we would take an extra step to engage with her and support her.

The connections we make each and every day at 360 Communities change lives, reshape hearts, and transform communities. When we connect with others in this way, we are building a stronger community on a foundation of caring for one another. You can get involved in this life-changing work by volunteering and/or making a year-end tax-deductible gift to 360 Communities.