'Live United, Give United': United Way campaign kicks off with Backpack Buddies event

BEMIDJI — Kicking off its annual Campaign for the Community, the United Way of Bemidji Area hosted a Backpack Buddies volunteer opportunity at Lueken’s Village Foods North on Wednesday, observing their commitment to live united and give united.

This year’s campaign theme, “Live United, Give United” is a chance for any community member to give back through volunteering, financial support or advocacy, explained Denae Alamano, executive director of the United Way of Bemidji Area.

“We want everyone to find how they can give back,” Alamano said. “The thing I love most is people walking into our door because they want to do something good for the community, and I get to help them figure out what that is.”

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Maggie Mills of Sathre Title fills a bag with food items on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, during a United Way of Bemidji Area Backpack Buddies packing event at Lueken’s Village Foods North.

Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

As one of the key volunteers packing up entrees and snacks into food packs, Alex Schussman was eager to help out after prior volunteering at the Ridgeway community picnics this past summer.

He had participated in the United Way’s L.I.N.C. — lead, impact, network, change — community impact course this year, which allows employers to choose an employee for a six-month course on nonprofit basics and community impact opportunities.

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“A big part of the L.I.N.C. committee was learning about what (the United Way’s) partner agencies do and how United Way helps them,” Schussman said. “It just got me excited about volunteering.”

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Alex Schussman of First National Bank organizes food on a packing table during a United Way of Bemidji Area Backpack Buddies packing event on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, at Lueken’s Village Foods North.

Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

The United Way’s partner agencies are 24 local organizations that will receive the campaign’s funding. These include the Bemidji Community Food Shelf, Support Within Reach and Headwaters Science Center among others.

Schussman also helped organize a Backpack Buddies event at his workplace, First National Bank, this past spring to get his fellow co-workers involved. According to Schussman, First National has its own United Way committee.

“We promote this as much as we can at the bank, to come volunteer and help out,” Schussman left off. “It’s a big part of who the bank is and me personally, I believe in it, too.”

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Volunteers place packed bags of food into boxes during a United Way of Bemidji Area Backpack Buddies packing event on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, at Lueken’s Village Foods North.

Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

According to Alamano, around 600 children receive food packs throughout Beltrami County as part of Backpack Buddies every Friday. The program was developed to ensure that students have access to food when other resources aren't available, including on weekends and school vacations.

Each food pack includes two entrees, one snack, two breakfast items, one vegetable, two fruits, two containers of milk and one high protein.

Setting the pace

Although Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince proclaimed Wednesday as “Live United Day” with Backpack Buddies being held in tandem, pacesetter businesses raised over one-third of the United Way’s 2022 fundraising goal before the day even arrived.

With this year’s campaign goal of $675,000 — their highest dollar amount ever according to Alamano — the pacesetter businesses raised $254,469.22 by conducting their workplace campaigns early.

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Volunteers fill bags with food items during a United Way of Bemidji Area Backpack Buddies packing event on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, at Lueken’s Village Foods North.

Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Workplace campaigns could include employees taking payroll deductions, corporate gifts and internal fundraising that could be anything from silent auctions to penny wars.

“Usually, (pacesetter funds) are like $170 or $180,000, so they killed it,” Alamano noted. “They exceeded an all-time high in their total this year.”

Pacesetter business totals include:

  • Sanford Health — $145,639.22
  • First National Bank Bemidji — $55,000
  • Beltrami Electric — $23,500
  • RiverWood Bank — $13,500
  • Potlatch Deltic — $11,390
  • UPS — $3,440
  • Target — $2,000

Doug and Lisa Jones, this year’s campaign co-chairs, noted exceptional community support at general United Way events when fulfilling their role as the faces of the campaign.
“A couple of years ago, I didn’t know how much United Way actually did and how many people they reach,” Doug recalled upon being named a co-chair. “It was good to feel that I was going to be a part of that and spread the word.”

“The United Way touches so many different nonprofits, so it’s kind of a good way to have people give to one cause that can help many,” Lisa mentioned.

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Arlene Hogquist, director of finance and corporate services at Beltrami Electric Cooperative, fills a bag with food items on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, during a United Way of Bemidji Area Backpack Buddies packing event at Lueken’s Village Foods North.

Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Last year’s campaign surpassed a $575,000 fundraising goal with a grand total of $672,480. In 2020, the United Way earned $554,273 compared to its $525,000 goal.

Doug referenced the 2020 campaign co-chairs and friends Jake and Melissa Bluhm, along with a lighthearted goal he has for this year’s campaign.

“My goal is to beat what Jake and Melissa raised that year,” he said with a laugh coming from Lisa.

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Alamano explained that co-chairs are chosen based on their network within the community and those who are giving of their time.

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A group of volunteers pose for a photo during a United Way of Bemidji Area Backpack Buddies packing event on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, at Lueken’s Village Foods North.

Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Event details

On Thursday, Sept. 22, the United Way’s Business Blitz will follow up the campaign’s kick-off.

According to the United Way of Bemidji Area’s website , partner agency volunteers will be visiting businesses to discuss the United Way and its impact throughout the Bemidji area, as well as collect donations.

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Volunteers fill bags with food items during a United Way of Bemidji Area Backpack Buddies packing event on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, at Lueken’s Village Foods North.

Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

A trap tournament will take place Thursday, Sept. 29 at the Bemidji Trap and Skeet Club with a choice of shooting times at 5, 5:30 or 6 p.m. Registration is $500 per team though a family division rate of $300 is available if one shooter is 18 years or younger.

Restaurant Week will take place Oct. 10-14, and give the public a chance to visit participating area restaurants and businesses on select days to support the campaign.

On Saturday, Oct. 22 and Sunday, Oct. 23, the Bemidji Theater will show a selected movie at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. as part of Movie Days for United Way. All tickets are $4 with proceeds benefiting the campaign.

Alamano also noted a Women United Tribute Awards ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 27, which precedes the end of the campaign on Monday, Oct. 31.

More information can be found at unitedwaybemidji.org and on the United Way of Bemidji Area Facebook page.

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Volunteers fill bags with food items during a United Way of Bemidji Area Backpack Buddies packing event on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, at Lueken’s Village Foods North.

Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

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Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer


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