Beth Wells said using Quarry Hills Parks’ trails as part of a life-size board game provided a new experience at a frequent family destination.

“It’s especially nice when we are stuck inside and getting a bit stir crazy,” the Rochester mother said Sunday during a trip to the park. “It’s good to burn off some energy.”

Wells and her children took part in Quarry Hills Nature Center’s Hike with a Naturalist program Sunday, joining family friends and others in a group of 20 to ensure COVID-19 safety requirements were in place.

It was one of two events Sunday led by naturalist Jill Danielsen, and it included a series of questions along trails with choices that led down one fork or another as the participants learned about survival needs of caterpillars, bats, birds and even mosquitoes.

Pam Meyer, executive director of Friends of Quarry Hill Nature Center, said it's good to see more organized activity on the grounds, with staff developing new ways to provide lessons online or to smaller groups.

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Staff has been producing weekly “This Week in the Wild” videos and adapting lessons for online use, which Meyer said has expanded its reach throughout Southeastern Minnesota.

At the same time, the organization also had to cope with the cancelation of summer camps and other programs, which are a chief source of income. In the end, the adjustment felt like a new start for Meyer.

“You are putting so many resources into figuring out a new way of continuing your mission,” she said.

Without support from city and county grants funded through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Meyer said she’s uncertain where the operation would be.

It’s an uncertainty that faced other groups as the pandemic set in, canceled fundraisers, forced belt-tightening and added costs related to safety measures.

Jeremiah Program relies heavily on community involvement and volunteer engagement, and with the pandemic, that’s been super hard,” said JoMarie Morris, executive director of the Rochester program that opened its Rochester campus amid the pandemic.

GRANTS OFFER HELP

Jennifer Woodford, president of Rochester Area Foundation, said such concerns were voiced by representatives from approximately 50 nonprofits that received a portion of $656,000 in grants from Olmsted County and $344,000 from Rochester.

She said knowledge of the need was why the foundation stepped in to administer the process that started with the county and continued with funds provided through the city.

“Everyone is stretched so thin right now with service delivery and extending services, so we thought if we could take part of the burden away by keeping the application processes similar, that would be a benefit,” she said.

To qualify for the funding, local nonprofit agencies needed to show they lost significant funding during the first months of the pandemic. Each of the two rounds of funding offered up to $25,000 to qualified agencies, based on need.

Both had the same requirements, with the exception of geography, since the Rochester funds were to be used within city limits.

Christina Sans, helps her daughter, Nora, on Sunday as they play a life-size board game designed by Quarry Hill Nature Center staff on the trails of Quarry Hill Park. (Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin)
Christina Sans, helps her daughter, Nora, on Sunday as they play a life-size board game designed by Quarry Hill Nature Center staff on the trails of Quarry Hill Park. (Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin)

The uses of the funding include providing help to keep the lights on to finding ways to lift spirits as the holidays approach.

Crystal Heim, communications coordinator for Ability Building Center, acknowledged it wasn’t an exciting use of funds from an outside perspective, but the organization earmarked the combined $50,000 it received to pay utilities through much of the year.

“When we use it toward one thing, we can use the other funds that come in for other things,” she said.

Chad Campbell said the same thing has been seen at the Boys and Girls Club of Rochester.

“Mostly, we’ve been able to reduce expenses.” the organization’s CEO said, pointing to the opportunity to use other funding to create programming to assist with distance learning.

Christina Sans gives her daughter, Nora, a ride Sunday as the pair play a life-sized board game on the trails of Quarry Hill Park. The game, designed by Quarry Hill Nature Center staff, was part of the Hike with a Naturalist program. (Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin)
Christina Sans gives her daughter, Nora, a ride Sunday as the pair play a life-sized board game on the trails of Quarry Hill Park. The game, designed by Quarry Hill Nature Center staff, was part of the Hike with a Naturalist program. (Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin)

Heim and Campbell said safety requirements created new barriers to service, as well as financial challenges.

For ABC, it means many of the more than 700 people the organization serves have not been able to work, which has significantly cut ABC’s funding.

As a result, staff has been laid off or seen hours reduced, and uncertainty continues to loom as the virus continues to spread.

“COVID has been a pretty hard hit for us,” Heim said.

Susan Knutson, Samaritan Bethany mission leader and CEO, said her organization has also felt the pain. Reduced nursing home occupancy, and the need for added precautions in senior living spaces have raised concerns.

Logan Forliti and Avery Wells read a question Sunday during a life-size board game designed by staff of Quarry Hill Nature Center, using Quarry Hill Park trails. (Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin)
Logan Forliti and Avery Wells read a question Sunday during a life-size board game designed by staff of Quarry Hill Nature Center, using Quarry Hill Park trails. (Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin)

As the organization works to make ends meet and adjust, the Samaritan Bethany Foundation was successful in obtaining $50,000 through the city and county grants to offset its losses after canceling fundraising efforts this year.

The foundation, which Knutson said funds things Samaritan Bethany typically can’t afford, is expected to help bring holiday cheer this year.

“We know the holidays are not going to be the same this year for our residents and our staff or anybody else, in reality, so we are focusing a lot of it toward doing some really nice things through the holidays,” Knutson said, pointing to plans for outdoor decorations that will seek to spread cheer to residents looking out their windows, as well as passers-by.

Indoor decorations and activities are also being planned to provide ways to overcome the sense of isolation.

“It’s been a long eight months so far,” Knutson said.

LOOKING AHEAD

The agencies agreed that the funds through the CARES Act have helped them move forward.

“I don’t know where we would be without that,” Morris said. “That was such a blessing.”

At the same time, they point to growing uncertainty as 2021 approaches.

“There are a number of things that have helped us piece things together for 2020,” Campbell said. “Quite frankly, I think we are more concerned about 2021 at this point than we are 2020.”

The agencies are pushing ahead, continuing to provide services in new ways.

“It’s kind of scary, but we are going to do what we can to cut expenses, apply responsibly for grants and use those funds responsibly, just so we can continue to operate,” Heim said.

Additionally, Knutson said Samaritan Bethany is looking forward to its 100th year in 2022, and Morris said Jeremiah Program is planning to expand its services to help more families.

And the Friends of Quarry Hill are hoping to continue finding new paths.

“We’re buoyed by what we are able to accomplish with this aid,” Meyer said of the CARES Act funds. “We are going into 2021 focused on continuing to be that community resource that connects people with nature.”