What started as volunteering once a week with the St. Louis Park Emergency Program turned into board membership. Now, Jennifer Ortale helps navigate serving vulnerable people in a crisis.
Jennifer, whose day job is strategy and distribution leader for Executive Benefits at Securian Financial, began volunteering with the St. Louis Park Emergency Program (STEP) in 2009, answering phones on Friday mornings. Her commitment grew over the years and today she is past chair of the STEP board of directors and current Executive Committee member, helping to lead this community organization through its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We talked with Jennifer about how she got started and how she is helping STEP meet the expanding needs and challenges of serving its clients, who rely on the organization for food, clothing, transportation and other assistance.
How long have you been involved with STEP, and in what different capacities have you volunteered with the organization?
I started out as a volunteer in 2009. I was impressed by the professionalism and warm-hearted interactions I saw between STEP clients and STEP staff. I joined the board in 2010, and in 2014, I became an officer as vice chair on the Executive Committee. In 2016, I was elected board chair, which I held through June 2020.
My STEP colleagues and I are definitely a working board, with the expectation that board members are visible “rolling up our sleeves” at STEP and other community events. During my time on STEP’s board I have led three Empty Bowls events — these are our biggest hunger awareness events. I have worked countless hours on holiday toy drives, back-to-school drives, winter coat drives and food drives. I have been one of the fundraising voices for our organization and a speaker at a number of local brewery events and a fundraising breakfast. For the past four years, I have waited with thousands of our neighbors to welcome the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train, which has stopped at STEP the past four Decembers.
Finally, I’ve worked with a small group on board recruitment. This is critical work, and it’s been our mission to build and maintain a board that properly reflects the diverse aspects and needs of our community.
How has STEP responded to increased community needs during the COVID-19 pandemic?
We have had to make some strategic changes in response to COVID-19 and the safety of our staff and volunteers. Right now, we have 10 staff members who are alternating work shifts in order to keep contact to a minimum and to try and prevent any sickness. We have closed the Clothes Closet and suspended our rides program. We have also furloughed most of our volunteers.
Several of our events have been cancelled, including a major fundraising breakfast that had been scheduled for May.
Overall, our primary focus is on meeting the needs of food and emergency housing assistance. Requests for emergency housing assistance had increased tremendously, and fortunately STEP has received several grants that help us expand this program. Food requests have also increased, and our social workers are working hard to meet the food needs of our community.
You were recently able to get a van to support STEP’s food program. How did that come about, and how is it being used?
Prior to COVID-19, STEP volunteers made some food deliveries and provided rides to clients who needed help getting to and from our food shelf. In addition, we had a great food rescue program, with daily weekday pick-ups at grocery stores around St. Louis Park. We had been renting a van for this program, but when we had to furlough our volunteers out of concern for their safety, the need for our own van became clear.
A series of events in early April lined up very nicely for us. Several local organizations made financial donations for the express purpose of buying a van, and I made a cold call to a local auto dealership. By chance, I was connected with their vice president of operations — a man named Andy.
I explained we were anticipating a tremendous increase in food insecurity, and that we needed to start doing more food deliveries. Andy got to work. Long story short, in a matter of two days, the dealership decided to sell us a van for the amount that we had — less than sticker price. We were thrilled qne grateful. We picked up the van in early April and have been using it since!
When I really believe in something, I can be very convincing. However, I was not at all prepared for the response from the dealership. The experience of working with a stranger like Andy — who instantly understood the importance of my ask and was positioned to take decisive and immediate action to help strangers — will stay with me for many years. It was an extraordinary example of compassion.
How did you decide to become involved with STEP?
I had a friend who almost lost everything in 2008-2009. First her job, then things went from there. She had competing financial priorities. Should she pay her mortgage? If she did, she couldn’t afford groceries. Should she pay the phone bill? If she did, she couldn’t afford prescriptions. She went to STEP and they helped her sort through all of these issues and gave her the short-term stabilization she needed.
She was able to stay in her home, keeping her kids in their schools and connections with friends, sports and social communities. I had a front row seat to her struggle. I will never forget the relief in her voice as she spoke to me through sobs about the help she received. I decided the best way I could help make a positive impact for people like my friend was to align with an organization like STEP.
Have I mentioned what all of this has done for me? It has been incredible for me personally. My social circles have widened with like-minded people from all backgrounds and walks of life. I’ve had my beliefs challenged. I’ve had to resolve my own unconscious biases. I’ve had to get comfortable speaking on these topics to large audiences. The thought of fundraising used to make me cringe — I would have preferred to write a check and be done with it. Now I know the importance of advocating for others, and I got over it.