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The Detroit Lakes Ministerial Association meets monthly at The Refuge to discuss how to best fulfill its ministry needs.

Changing the world, one act of random kindness at a time

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Changing the world, one act of random kindness at a time
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Volunteers: They’re the backbone of any non-profit organization, the heart in every community celebration.

They’re the people who collect donations for the annual food drive at work, the ones who flip the flapjacks for the church pancake feed.


Sometimes, they’re the loving presence at the bedside of a dying hospice patient who has no family to care for them — and yes, sometimes they’re the young people who help frail, elderly men and women cross the street or climb the stairs to their apartment.

But even though the jobs they do are varied, the one thing that all volunteers have in common is that they’re making a difference in the lives of others.

“How we change the world is with one act of random kindness at a time,” says Randy Kohler, executive director of The Refuge Christian Outreach Center in Detroit Lakes.

“You can punch a clock, collect a salary, working at a job you love to do, but nothing equals the fulfillment you can feel from helping someone else without expecting anything in return,” he added.

Kohler said that volunteers are an essential part of everything The Refuge does, from operating the Helping Hands Thrift Store downtown, to constructing the new Compassion House shelter for homeless men, to serving up free breakfasts or suppers in the Refuge kitchen or helping out manager Shirley Manning at the Solid Grounds Coffee Shop.

Kohler says that his passion for volunteerism has made all the difference in his own life.

“It’s so hard to explain the fulfillment I feel … the transformation that has occurred in my own life,” he said, noting that volunteerism is “the new high in my life,” replacing far less healthy types of addiction.

“Once you do it (volunteer), you want to do it all the time, because you get to see the joy it brings to those you help,” he added.

“It just feels good,” says Mary Lou McCollum, a volunteer for the past eight years at the gift shop operated by the Ecumen-Emmanuel Nursing Home Auxiliary. “I get more out of helping them than they do sometimes.”

“You just get a contented feeling (from helping others),” agreed Ecumen-Emmanuel Auxiliary board member Louanne Gerdes, who has been volunteering at the nursing home since 1995, and has served as an Auxiliary officer since 1998.

Besides operating the gift shop, “we’ve held Bingo every Tuesday here since at least 1978 — even when we didn’t have a formal Auxiliary,” Gerdes added. “We also do hair care, assist with services at the chapel and provide assistance at all the funerals when they need it — and we provide escort service for residents when they need to get to their medical and dental appointments.”

The Auxiliary also holds an annual “Tree of Giving” fundraiser during the holidays, with the proceeds going to purchase items on the nursing home’s “wish list” for the coming year.

Duane Erickson volunteers at Emmanuel by offering one-on-one visits with the residents every Wednesday.

“I’m a pretty good listener,” he explained, noting that as an ex-military man, he has particularly good rapport with the veterans who live there.

Erickson said his 35-year history as a corrections department officer with a master’s degree in counseling and social work “made me a natural to work with people.”

One of the reasons why he enjoys volunteering at Emmanuel, Erickson added, is that the staff actively engages the residents in activities.

“You don’t just see the residents sitting around — they do things with the people who live here,” he said.

Erickson added that his wife, Annabelle, also volunteers at Emmanuel once a week, helping residents with sending and receiving e-mail.

Barb Schiller, volunteer coordinator for Ecumen-Detroit Lakes — which encompasses not only Emmanuel Nursing Home, but also The Madison, The Cottage and Lamplighter Manor — said that they have roughly 150-160 active volunteers of all ages working at Emmanuel.

“Some of them come here every day, and some come once in a while,” she said. “Some of them want a schedule, and some just come in whenever they can and help with whatever they see that needs doing.

“At Christmas time we have a gal who comes to make krumkake once a year,” she added.

Besides the Auxiliary’s various fundraising and volunteer services, Ecumen-Detroit Lakes also has several other volunteer programs including Community Caregivers (whose motto is “doing what friends do for friends”); the Helping Hands Ministry (which assists seniors and disabled residents with minor home repairs and maintenance); and the Senior Companion program (which is for volunteers age 60 and up).

One of the community’s newer non-profit organizations is the Detroit Lakes Area Chapter of Let’s Go Fishing, which offers fishing and boating excursions on area lakes to groups of seniors, veterans, youth and residents with disabilities — all free of charge.

“Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization,” says Dave Hochhalter, past president and co-founder of the local LGF chapter.

Though the organization has a plethora of volunteers who serve on its board of directors, doing clerical work, scheduling trips, organizing the annual Walk for Let’s Go Fishing and other activities, “the volunteers who go out on the trips are the ones that actually make (the trips) happen,” Hochhalter said.

“We have two volunteers going out on every trip,” he said, adding that the help is necessary for getting people on board, assisting them with getting hooks baited and fishing lines out in the water, “just getting them to enjoy their time on the water, then helping them back onto shore at the end of the trip.

“It’s also rewarding for the volunteers because they get a chance to help people get out on the water that maybe won’t have that chance otherwise,” he said. “It’s a good interaction between the volunteers and the clients… they talk about the history of the lake, their own experiences from when they were able to get out and go fishing on their own, the big fish they’ve caught and so forth.”

The kids that LGF takes on fishing excursions are also able to “get involved in a lifelong activity that they can enjoy far into the future.”

Hochhalter also noted that those businesses, organizations and individuals who donate money, bait and other supplies are also an essential part of LGF’s success; the organization hosted a record 101 fishing and boating trips last spring and summer, in large part due to that assistance.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this without our volunteers,” Hochhalter said, adding that “nobody gets paid — except in the smiles and laughter that they see and hear.”

The United Way of Becker County is another organization that relies heavily on volunteerism for its operations.

“Volunteers are the United Way!!” exclaimed the organization’s executive director, Luann Porter.

“Over 10,000 hours are donated by volunteers to the United Way each year,” she added. “If you multiplied those 10,000 hours by the United Way World standard of $20.57 per volunteer hour, that’s over $205,000 worth of time and talent given to help us reach our goals. 

“And this happens each and every year.  Without the volunteers we could not do Day of Caring, Community Celebration, Celebration of Heroes or Food for Thought Backpack Program.  We could not raise the dollars needed to support over 30 programs in Becker County.

“Our partner agencies also have many, many volunteers who keep their programs going,” she added.

“There are so many avenues and roads to volunteer here,” Kohler said.

“For an opportunity to experience fulfillment and meaning, backed by purpose and meaning in your life, volunteering is the way to go,” he added.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 15 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as obituaries. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454