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The members of Faith Lutheran Church (including Share Tank winner Nancy Mollner, second from left) help pack backpacks for refugee children.

Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series about local Share Tank charitable giving winners.

It was a “60 Minutes” news story of Somali refugee crisis and subsequent immigration to the U.S., aired in the fall of 2016, that first caught Nancy Mollner’s attention.

“I was transfixed,” Mollner said.

That’s what ultimately led Mollner to stand up in front of the panel of judges and a crowd at Faith Lutheran Church for the church’s inaugural Share Tank event. Share Tank is the church’s spin on the hit television show “Shark Tank,” in which contestants show their inventions and try to sell a piece of the business to investors. Instead of business pitches, however, the Share Tank contestants battled for grant money for charitable projects they’d like to perform in the city.

Mollner was one of four grant recipients from the Share Tank to receive funding for the projects they are working on to help better the community. Mollner received $2,250 through funds raised and given by Faith Lutheran Church to continue her work helping supply refugee and immigrant families with needs through her partnership with Lutheran Social Service.

Going back to that first clip on “60 Minutes,” Mollner realized she wanted to do more when a pastor of a Baptist church in Georgia talked about his church’s sponsorship of several families.

“I thought ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ And this pastor was talking about why he did it and he said, ‘If we don’t, who’s going to do it?’” Mollner remembered. That quote left Mollner pondering what she could do through the rest of the broadcast, and then she got her first tip directly on the screen. That Baptist church had posted a sign containing the three letters “LSS.” That caught Mollner’s eye, and she immediately knew who it was.

“I said: ‘I know that organization! That’s Lutheran Social Service. We have LSS here in Minnesota,’” Mollner said. “Right after the program was done, I went to the computer and dug through the whole website and I found the spot that said, ‘How do churches help refugees?’”

Mollner knew that the Church had helped other immigrant and refugee families settle into life in Minnesota in the past, including immigrants after the end of World War II as well as the Vietnam War, and had also helped a Hmong family.

“I thought, ‘We’ve done this in the past, why can’t we keep doing it?’” she said. 

While searching through the possible ways churches could get involved, she landed on what LSS used to call being an “outfitter.”

“You help by supplying a whole beginners kit of items when the refugees first get here just to get them going for the first couple weeks. I thought, ‘We could do that,’” Mollner said. She called Faith Lutheran Church Pastor John Klawiter, and they began working on the development of the project.

Then, in 2017, Faith Lutheran Church opened up its first missions grant program. Applicants who were chosen were given a small amount of money to help pursue a mission. Mollner was one of the recipients of that grant, which provided her $1,000 for her new partnership with LSS.

With that $1,000, along with other private donations and the help of another endowment grant, she helped gift four families with household supplies to get immigrant families started in Minnesota after moving here with nothing — including cleaning supplies like vacuum cleaners and mops and brooms, other toiletries, school supply kits and kitchen appliances or items.

Last year, two of the immigrant families she was helping came during the Thanksgiving holiday, so Mollner wrapped up her Thanksgiving celebration in the late afternoon, then headed out shopping to pick up the more expensive items she knew the families needed.

“You can get pots and pans, and all kinds of stuff, and vacuum cleaners really cheap during that time,” Mollner said. “I did a heck of a lot of shopping.”

The grant money and endowment money she received has been stretched to the max, as Mollner has asked the church for donations when it’s appropriate and then searches for good deals on items still needed. But the money doesn’t go that far, she said, and there’s still more work to do.

Then on Sept. 11, Mollner shared her passion with the panel and crowd at Share Tank.

“I started off by saying, ‘What would it feel like for you to get awakened in the middle of the night and grab the most important items that you have and stick them into a backpack and leave your house as soon as you could? You would get to the nearest border as fast as you could. You’re going to a place where they didn’t speak your language and where they didn’t want you — and you’re going to have to stay in a camp for years. But the alternative would be if you stayed you’d be put in prison or you’d be killed,’” Mollner recalled. “And that’s what happened to over 25 million people.”

That opening got to panelist and local business owner Eric Ernst.

“I’ve got an extended family — kids that I love — in Honduras, so the second she starts talking about any of that, I think of those kids in Honduras, and they’re my extended family,” Ernst said. “It became, I want to help you, I want to help donate to this. I want to make sure you guys can keep doing what you’re doing while you’re figuring out what you’re doing.”

While the amount of refugees coming into Minnesota has slowed because of current immigration laws, LSS still sees a need for refugee families already here in Minnesota. It changed its model from an “outfitting” need to a “direct action” program. In comparison, the outfitting program was used to help families with initial start-up items. The direct action program helps refugees with one-time needs.

“Now [my contact at LSS] will call me up and say, ‘I need 30 backpacks of school supplies,’ or ‘I need 20 personal care kits,’” Mollner said. “I just fulfilled a request (that) was for 10 cleaning kits and I sent along four bicycles and four bike helmets we got from donations.”

Outside of utilizing the money to purchase current needs for those families, Mollner is also working on an education program to try to educate people about immigrant and refugee life and how she believes there’s nothing to fear from them. She wants people to be more aware of who they are and their struggles.

“I think that’s why that program was so interesting to me because they talked about the vetting process, which takes a year to two years, and they go through three different agencies to make sure the refugees are safe to come into the country,” Mollner said. “I just don’t think we have anything to fear.”

Mollner said she’d love to bring in speakers to talk about life as a refugee.

“I’d love to bring in a speaker from Lutheran Social Service. He’s the director of the refugee resettlement there,” Mollner said. “He’d be so good. He’s an actual refugee, so he’s been through the experience.”

Mollner said she loves playing a part in helping refugees in any way she can.

“I ask myself why I feel such a tie to refugees, … but I do.”

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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