Forest Lake Good Samaritans see momentum
Forest Lake’s Mike Kaiser was out for a run – where he says he does his best thinking – in mid-July 2017. It was just after the tornado had hit town, and people were cleaning up from the storm. He thought to himself how it would be great if he could gather a group of people, and just do the clean-up for residents who were impacted.
“I thought how cool would it be if a bunch of neighbors helped them, cleaned it all up, took it all away, and said, ‘There you go,’” Kaiser said.
So he went home to his wife, Sonja, and said, “I think I’m going to start a group of people that just wants to help people.”
After taking the day to think about how it would work, he posted on the neighborhood social media app Nextdoor, asking for people – particularly those in the trades – to donate four hours of their time once a month. That first day, 37 people responded with interest. By the end of the week, that number had grown to a hundred.
“So that was like, ‘Wow, this is cool,’” Kaiser said.
Two meetings were held shortly after to talk about potential projects: one in the morning and another in the evening, to accommodate various work schedules and the amount of people at the meeting.
The first official meeting, outside of planning projects, was on Aug. 31, 2017.
Melissa “Mo” Lundmark was one of those people who showed up, and has since taken an active role in what is now become an official non-profit.
“She got in and rolled up her sleeves. She’s been at every event since the first one,” Kaiser said, while Lundmark was quick to point out she’s been away for a few projects, – but “anything I’ve been in town for,” she said.
In the five years since its inception, the club, has spent hundreds of hours doing various projects for people in need, in addition to giving out thousands of dollars to those in need.
It’s not hard for Kaiser or Lundmark to recall favorite stories from the last five years of good Samaritan projects. Instead, one story about a favorite moment would lead into another, and another.
There’s the first project the group took on: an overgrown yard that belonged to a woman whose husband had died.
“He had been doing it prior to him getting sick, and she was his caregiver for a number of years,” Kaiser said. “They let their lawn completely go for like five years. It was a jungle.”
So 17 good Samaritans showed up to clear out the brush from the yard, taking seven trailer-loads of brush to the composting site.
That first project is where Lundmark said it was evident the group would feel like a community.
“Still, people say hi to me that were at the first one,” Lundmark said.
Stories from the first project led into other memorable experiences, like helping a developmentally challenged man move into his own place, who now attends all the good Samaritan events with his Polaroid camera, taking two photos: one to give away, the other to keep.
But one of the most memorable, Lundmark and Kaiser said, is working with Ben Dougherty, a retired veteran with congestive heart failure and other medical ailments, and his wife who “can’t walk more than a couple steps at a time,” according to Dougherty. The two will be moving into an assisted living home soon, but have lived in their home for more than 50 years. Their yard needed cleaning up, a task that would be too difficult for the two of them, and one they could hardly afford to pay someone to do. Dougherty said he remembers placing an ad on Craigslist about hiring somebody to help, and Kaiser responded.
“They had so much stuff in their yard,” Kaiser said
That first morning they came, they cleared out old items and garbage, while also doing lawn maintenance, taking three trips to the dump and compost with their trailer that first day.
Since then, they’ve been back a few times to continue helping the couple get their home ready to sell.
“For me, personally, I’ve always done [things for myself and others]. I’d help neighbors. I’ve never been in a position I couldn’t do it. …It’s a really good feeling that people are out there to help you,” Dougherty said.
More than just the cleanup, the good Samaritans have grown closer to the Doughertys since that first project took place. Sonja, Kaiser’s wife, made the couple a dinner when she found out they couldn’t go out to celebrate for their 50th wedding anniversary.
“They brought us dinner and a cake and flowers,” Dougherty said. Dougherty also added that Kaiser brought new flags to fly at his home, a touching gesture to the veteran.
In turn, when the Forest Lake Good Samaritans held a garage sale fundraiser, Dougherty, a skilled woodworker, donated handmade pieces to sell at the garage sale, telling the group to keep whatever they make off of their sale.
But Dougherty’s story is just one story of many the group recalls with fondness. There are stories that also include donating gift cards to the victims of house fires (there have been several) or bikes to a family in need, paying for car repairs, donating food and goodies to area bus drivers and cheering them on with homemade signs, or making food trains for those who’ve lost loved ones, all from money they’ve raised either by participating in fundraisers or through the organization’s sponsors listed on the back of the group’s t-shirts. Those are more of the stories the group will share.
“There’s just so many of them,” Kaiser said.
When Kaiser first dreamed up what he wanted the Good Samaritans to do, he thought of how many people’s lives can be affected if it spreads. So he did the math. At the time, if one person does something nice for three people, in 18 days, the world’s population could receive two random acts of kindness.
The mission of the group is more than just to do good things around the Forest Lake area, but to have the idea take hold and start spreading around the world.
And it’s happening.
Locally, in the last few years, similar groups have been started in Anoka County and Chisago Lakes. The Chisago Lakes group saw the Forest Lake Good Samaritans group on Facebook and told Kaiser, “We want to have a group just like you guys. How do we do it?” he recalled being asked.
Now, he said, “They are doing it.”
They’re now talking about doing joint projects or contests.
Kaiser also ended up connecting with a man from Maryland who picks up trash every day. In 2020, the two began a contest to determine who could pick up the most trash to become “the cleanest city in America.” Forest Lake lost its first round.
But more than just the “cleanest city in America,” Kaiser’s challenge to pick up trash spread across social media across the world. It began with wanting to promote kindness with his t-shirts across the country. He started doing promotional videos on social media in which he asked people to pick up trash in their neighborhood, and if they did, he’d send a t-shirt to them – no matter where they are. By the end of the challenge, he had to send t-shirts to people in Australia, Brazil and Japan.
That led to the 2021 cleanest city challenge, where 17 cities across the globe participated in the trash pickup day.
In just five years, the group has seen a difference their group has made by the fact that Kaiser or organizational leaders don’t even see the need before it’s taken care of.
Lundmark said, “Somebody will go on [our Facebook page] and they’ll post something, and before we have the chance to get to them, some other person on our Facebook group totally takes care of it. It’s just happening.”
“I’ve lived a blessed life, but the last five years have been my best five years,” Kaiser said. “The more you give, the more you get back.”