The gift of Armful of Love: the 360 Communities experience

by Anika Rychner
Special to Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

A woman recently interviewed to participate in 360 Communities Armful of Love, our holiday gift program that has been matching families in need with sponsors for over 40 years. With her 1-year-old baby at her side, she told us that her husband was a painter who found odd painting jobs to support the family, but with the cold weather and winter coming those jobs were becoming scarce.

After completing the Armful of Love application, we explained that 360 Communities had many more programs that could help her family through difficult times. She was grateful to hear about the food shelf and we were quickly able to access enough diapers and wipes to get her through the rest of the week. When we gave them to her, the mother began to cry. She thanked us for the help and returned the next week for a 360 Communities assessment intake that connected her not only with food shelf services but with a wide variety of other programs and resources.

This is just one example of how 360 Communities staff and volunteers engage families to surround them with resources. Whether an individual or a family first engages with 360 Communities through a school, a hospital, child care, one of our domestic violence shelters, one of our five food shelves, or through Armful of Love, we are able to connect with them on a deeper level, many times uncovering other needs. Then the work of ensuring safe and healthy homes, promoting school success for their children, and ultimately encouraging self-sufficiency begins.

Sometimes self-sufficiency can happen quickly when an individual or a family simply needs food or emergency services to bridge them through a difficult short-term period. In many cases, however, it takes more intensive support through multiple programs and resources to create a success story. This is where 360 Communities excels. By intervening early and often with families, we are able to make sure ensuing generations have a better chance at successful lives, free of food shelf dependency.

According to Hunger Solutions, about 36 percent of Minnesota food shelf clients have at least one working adult in the home. For these folks, it’s not an unwillingness to work, it is low wages and reduced hours that make it difficult to achieve self-sufficiency. For others, there has been a job loss, a medical emergency, domestic violence, or a combination of barriers that place them in crisis. The reasons why people access food shelves are complex and varied, so it requires unique and innovative solutions to help them reach self-sustained success.

With Armful of Love, 360 Communities makes it easy to access items like holiday gifts, clothing and food for families. By doing so, we invite a deeper conversation and build trust. Then we can provide far-reaching supports to help further stabilize any crisis and work with clients to achieve greater self-sufficiency.

This year, Armful of Love staff and volunteers have already completed more than 1,100 interviews. Each one of these brief interviews for holiday gifts opens the door to a meaningful conversation about barriers to success as well as an opportunity for a family to engage with 360 Communities. In one week alone, we had 22 Armful of Love families return for food and financial assistance intakes stemming from these interviews.

The true gift of the Armful of Love program is the 360 Communities experience of support. When our partners in the community donate to a 360 Communities program, their donation dollars go much further to help a client because of the interconnectivity of our programs and resources. Eighty-two cents out of every dollar goes into direct service work. Our holistic approach ensures that every donation to our organization has far-reaching impacts designed to last for generations to come.

Anika Rychner is director of self-sufficiency at 360 Communities, a Dakota County a nonprofit that engages communities to prevent violence, ensure school success and promote long-term self-sufficiency. For more information about 360 Communities or to donate or volunteer, visit 360Communities.org or call 952-985-5300. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.

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