When a tornado tore through North Minneapolis May 22, 2011, Elizabeth Estepp of Ham Lake gathered volunteers and waited for a call telling them it was safe to drive in the area.
The Friend 2 Friend ministry, which is based out of Horizons Community Church in Ham Lake, brought food, water, clothing, hygiene products, furniture and other supplies to families impacted by the tornado damage for many days and months.
These efforts led Brenda Kennelly to nominate Estepp for a 2012 American Red Cross Heroes Award, which Estepp will receive at a May 24 breakfast at Target Field in Minneapolis.
“Elizabeth is the most caring individual I’ve ever come across,” Kennelly said. “She always goes above and beyond the call of duty to come up with a way to meet the needs of so many in need.”
Estepp was quick to point out that other volunteers like Kennelly enable the Friend 2 Friend ministry to bring goods to 17 locations in Anoka County, one location in Minneapolis and one location in St. Paul at least once a month.
“Really, it isn’t about the clothes or anything. It’s your presence there,” Estepp said. “The fact that we show up every month means they can count on us and we’re not just coming by to do something and we’ll be gone and you’ll never see us again.”
The people they help are so thankful that they sometimes organize their own collection drives to help meet needs at other locations Friend 2 Friend stops at, Estepp said.
Others have become volunteers. Lisa Plumley said Friend 2 Friend helped her out, so she wanted to give back in any way she could.
“The most fulfilling thing is giving to someone and watching them be filled up by God’s love,” she said.
The group’s origins
Rev. Jimmy Jones of Horizons Community Church gave a sermon during a Sunday service over three years ago that resonated with many church members.
Jones asked the congregation, “If our doors, closed tomorrow, would anyone in the community even know or care that we were gone?”
Members thought long and hard about this. Some chose to start outreach ministries that would benefit the general public. Friend 2 Friend was one of the groups that formed after this sermon. Estepp said the first idea was to have a clothing closet within the church, but there was not good spot.
Estepp looked at her husband Joe’s trailer sitting unused in her back yard and the idea came to them that they could bring clothes to the people instead of having the people come to the clothes.
They started going to community food shelves or places where free meals were being served.
“We figured if people were coming for those food resources that it was just a natural thing that they were going to need the clothing also,” Estepp said.
It turns out that this assumption was true. Church leaders told Friend 2 Friend that they tried to have their own clothing closets, but it was too much work, so these new volunteers were welcomed with open arms.
Friend 2 Friend started as a clothing closet and uses a clothes hanger in its logo, but it has become much more than a mobile clothing distributor.
Today, the group distributes furniture, dishes, appliances, toys, hygiene products, canned goods and fresh produce. It has three mobile trailers, including one that brings canned food and fresh produce to people who cannot make it to a food shelf. The church a year ago began leasing warehouse space so volunteers would not have to find storage space at their own homes.
Going to Minneapolis
Estepp and Friend 2 Friend already had a working relationship with a Minneapolis church that was in the area where the tornado hit, but was miraculously unharmed.
They knew the storm damage and flood of first responders and other people would make it difficult to get in the area immediately, so Estepp waited for her contact in that area to call her.
Once they called a couple of days later, the group mobilized and brought supplies and a huge helping of a pasta dish made by one of the members during one afternoon. The group made numerous visits to the area whenever members were needed and could make it. For about eight months after the tornado hit, the group stopped by at least twice a month.
One family with 12 kids had lived in a house that was “obliterated,” according to Estepp.
They started collecting furniture and other goods for this family, Estepp said.
By the time the family found new housing after bouncing around from shelter to shelter, one of their 20-foot trailers was full of goods and even though they lost their home, the parents’ main concern was having warm clothes for their kids when winter came, she said.
When delivering a donated drying machine to a home in Minneapolis, Estepp found a grandmother and grandson sleeping in a tent on a porch outside their house because the house is so damaged.
Kennelly said it was devastating to see the damage because it upset their whole world. Everything they owned was gone, but they could walk three blocks away and everyone was fine, so they wondered why they got hit, she said.
They left their phone numbers with people in case they needed someone to talk to. Kennelly remembers a return visit to someone who got a job between visits and had a much happier demeanor.
Another person called because they were depressed, but did not want to start drinking again, Kennelly said.
Some people ask Estepp how much she will be involved in people’s lives. She responds, “As much as they want me to be involved.”
“When they open the door and let you into their world and their need, you don’t let go of them until they’re ready to let go of your hand and say, ‘I’m OK now,’” she said.
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org