St. Croix Valley organization Operation HELP was born of the altruism of the yuletide spirit. “The organization was started by a couple, Bob and Mary Nasvik, they started the Christmas program and operated it out of their church,” say executive director Tim Puffer.
The pair were aware of some families in the area that were struggling financially, and they wanted to pitch in and help provide a Christmas experience for the children of these families. From there, the organization has expanded into other areas of need in the St. Croix Valley.
Now, Operation HELP focuses on two year-round programs. The first is an emergency financial assistance program that helps families in the St. Croix Valley with rent, utilities and car repair. “The reason we do this is to keep people in their homes and keep people in their jobs,” says Puffer.
The second area of focus is a resource center that supplies essential items such as toiletries and vouchers for gasoline, laundromats and food.
“Before COVID-19, our resource center was a walk-in service,” says Puffer. “Now, there are limited walk-ins but we encourage calling ahead. We speak with people over the phone and put together the vouchers and items that they need for a pick-up.”
Daily operational changes aren’t the only differences the organization has seen as of this interview conducted in August. They’re also working double-time to meet demand. “Since March, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs. At this point in August, we’re running about 30 percent or more ahead of what we do in a typical year,” says Puffer.
Before COVID-19, Operation HELP assisted six to eight families a week in the St. Croix Valley with emergency financial assistance. From the end of July to mid-August, that number jumped to an average of 15 to 20 families per week. Puffer says the organization expects this trend to continue through the end of the year.
But even as the need has risen and the future uncertain, the generosity of the community has been outstanding. “At this point in time, we’ve been lucky; the support has increased with the demand,” says Puffer. “The community is tremendous. Businesses and churches have risen to the demand. And the St. Croix Valley Foundation has provided grant support to a number of organizations, including ours.”
While the current outpouring of support has made a crucial impact on Operation HELP’s ability to assist families in the area, there are some concerns that people might be unaware that the needs continue.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for some time, and people are getting fatigued,” Puffer says.
Although the 2020 Christmas program fundraising will have ended by the time this article is printed, there are still ways you can support your community. “Right now, the biggest thing for Operation HELP is that we’re making financial grants to people who are having trouble paying their utilities and rent,” says Puffer.
He also notes the organization has seen a jump in families experiencing financial hardships for the first time. “Overall, there are a lot of resources for people in the St. Croix Valley. In addition to Operation HELP, there’s the United Way's 211 referral service, which helps you find information for what’s available.” Puffer says what’s most important is for families to ask for help and know there are resources out there.