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Karen Organization of Minnesota: GTCUW Funding Helps Us “Be a Lifeline”

“We’re seeing almost double the demand in calls compared to our typical walk-in visits as our community tries to deal with the effects of COVID-19,” said Alexis Walstad, Co-Executive Director of the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

The Karen Organization of Minnesota was founded just over a decade ago to enhance the quality of life for all refugees from Burma in Minnesota. Many Minnesotans don’t realize there are more than 17,000 Karen people living in our state, making it the largest Karen community in the country. The organization offers a variety of programs to help refugees transition to a new country and work towards their goals.

Year-round, Greater Twin Cities United Way funds the Karen Organization’s work in economic opportunity and career and future readiness as well as helps the organization broaden awareness of the Karen community. Right now, the Karen Organization is thankful for an emergency second round grant from the Greater Twin Cities COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund to address critical needs.

When COVID-19 hit, Walstad says many in the Karen community had their work schedules reduced or lost jobs entirely. She explains that filing for unemployment is extremely difficult when English is not someone’s first language.

“Of the approximately 700 phone calls we’ve received, about half of them are from community members who need help with unemployment insurance,” said Walstad. “The unemployment insurance website has no information in Karen, and when you call on the phone it can take hours to find an interpreter. Our staff has been a lifeline for refugees to connect them to services.”

The organization also runs after-school programming for grades 6-12 at two St. Paul public high schools. Staff normally do in-person tutoring and cultural activities as well as career pathway preparation. The Karen Organization currently has five staff members working with 80 program participants remotely via teleconference and hopes to expand to reach another 60 students in the coming weeks.

“This has been a stressful and difficult time, and when we learned about the funding, it was honestly such a relief,” said Walstad. “United Way is quickly allocating resources to organizations like ours working on the front lines. To hear from an existing funder saying we were receiving dollars automatically— no application needed—just demonstrated the level of trust we’ve built with United Way.”

The Karen Organization says they’ll use the grant to keep their current staff employed so they can continue to be a lifeline for unemployment assistance as well as provide support to Karen students remotely. And, they’ll take things one day at a time.

“We’ve always adapted our services to our community, so during COVID-19 we are—as always— adapting and learning along with the community as we go,” Walstad said.

Take Action: To help, donate to the Greater Twin Cities COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund at gtcuw.org/covid19fund or by texting GTCUWCOVID19 to 51555.

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