WINONA — A small group of people can make a big impact.

That's the lesson the Rev. Danielle Bartz hoped her congregation would learn when she and pastors at four other Winona-area churches started a Lenten project back in February. That project retired roughly $2 million of medical debt of people's credit all across Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"We were talking about how it seems so often small towns or small churches can’t make a difference," Bartz said, who is the pastor at First Congregational Church of Winona. "Congregants think their work isn’t having a big impact."

The churches collected $15,000 and used that money – there's still some left to help expand the project into northeastern Iowa – to buy $2 million in bad debt for pennies on the dollar through a New York-based nonprofit called RIP Medical Debt. Once the debt has been paid off, it will remove the bad credit from those individual's credit reports.

Bartz said the debt is the kind of funds owed by people who have shown no ability to pay it with the debt being sent to collections and given up upon by the creditors long ago.

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"This is the really bad debt that's on people's credit," she said.

"There are people drowning in that kind of debt and have no way out," said Rev. Michael Short of Central Lutheran Church in Winona.

Bartz said the project began when the pastors – including Rev. Rachel Rosendahl of Grace Presbyterian Church of Winona, Rev. Jeff Franko of Cedar Valley Lutheran Church and Rev. Corrine Haulotte of Lutheran Campus Center of Winona – got together for one of their weekly meetings to discuss that week's scripture readings. But, as often happens, the discussion branched off to other topics, and that's when they talked about showing their congregations how they can make a big difference.

"We’re a relatively small group of people," Bartz said.

For example, Central Lutheran is the largest of the group, but gets only about 200 or so congregants on a Sunday morning, Short said. Bartz said her own church has about 200 members, but about 70 are truly active in the church.

Bartz said the churches set a goal of raising $15,000 through Lent and announcing the success at Easter, but then COVID-19 came along and messed with the plans. Still the churches eventually raised the money and were able to retire burdening medical debt for 1,057 households. Each of those households will receive a letter within the coming weeks saying their debt has been paid off.

Shari and Clare Jarvis, members of Bartz's congregation, said they'd actually given to RIP Medical Debt before, so when the churches got together to raise the funds, they felt moved to give again.

"Both of us have had times in our lives," Shari Jarvis said, describing business difficulties and job layoffs in their pasts. "My husband and I live comfortably. It just feels like it’s something right to do."

Short said that even though the debt relief was spread across two states, it's nice to know there might be someone in your life who, anonymously, has been impacted.

"We all probably know somebody who had some surgery or an accident and was left with a medical debt they couldn’t sustain," he said.

Jarvis said she and her husband looked at it as a way to pay forward things that people have done for them in the past.

"We’ve personally been blessed," she said. "The money is kind of an ancillary thing. Even if you can only give a dollar or 10 bucks, just give something because it’s what your heart says you can do."

Charity begins near the home

The debt payment helped 80 families in Winona County and its neighboring counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Houston County, 1 recipient: $333.38

Olmsted County, 20 recipients: $20,158.21

Wabasha County, 1 recipient: $43.02

Winona, 7 recipients: $7,432.81

Buffalo (Wis.) County, 4 recipients: $4,737.06

La Crosse (Wis.) County, 34 recipients: $31,515.08

Trempealeau (Wis.) County, 13 recipients: $21,848.84

Totals, 80 recipients: $86,068.40