Local man ‘pays it back’ to thank UWNEMN for COVID assistance


Craig Roberts has worked for 30 years as a handyman, and as a self-employed contractor he said he never thought he’d ever be out of work.

“Things might slow down every now and then, but never for more than a week or two,” he said. “Nothing like this.”

Roberts is one of many individuals across the nation whose livelihood has been uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. His work was not up-ended due to government mandates or a lack of demand but rather the heightened safety concerns due to the pandemic.

“People don’t really want anyone coming in and out of their houses right now,” Roberts pointed out.

Over a year into the pandemic, work has still not picked up for Roberts, and while he misses the sense of purpose and satisfaction working gave him (“I like seeing a project through from start to finish and making a client happy,” he said), the growing financial impacts have become his biggest stressor.

“You worry and worry and can’t sleep,” he said. “…I didn’t want my landlady to be stuck …and I knew the Cold Weather Rule was ending soon.”

Roberts is sleeping a little easier now, with help from United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN)’s COVID-19 Crisis Fund. Roberts learned about the fund from a flyer Chisholm Public Utilities sent with their latest billing; the utility is one of many local utilities sending messages about UWNEMN’s funds with their bills to alert customers experiencing income loss of the potential assistance.

He applied for the Crisis Fund last month, and UWNEMN was able to pay his utility bills.

“It’s a huge relief,” he said. “A weight off my shoulders.”

Roberts was so grateful for the assistance, he has been volunteering at UWNEMN for the last few weeks, mainly assembling boxes for the organization’s Buddy Backpacks program which delivers weekend meal kits to more than 1,000 local students at-risk of hunger each week.

“I wanted to pay it back,” he said. “I might not be able to donate money right now, but I can donate my time.”


Almost immediately after the pandemic began, UWNEMN began working to build up crisis funds both on the Iron Range and in Koochiching County to support agencies, programs, and individuals in each area while keeping funding local. To date, the organization has secured more than $309,000 thanks to support from: St. Louis County Community Development Block Grant Program, Northland Foundation, IRRR, Range Transitional Housing/Wells Fargo Foundation, an anonymous donor, Twin Metals, Dwight & Lorraine Jamar Foundation, Minnesota Power Foundation, PCA, Virginia Community Foundation, Wells Fargo Foundation, Otto Bremer Trust, Chisholm Community Foundation, TruStar Federal Credit Union, Komatsu Mining Corp, Carpool Cinema Fundraiser, and local individuals.

Of that, $48,765 remains to be distributed to agencies and individuals across the region.

To qualify for funding, applicants must live and/or work in UWNEMN’s service territory and currently be out of work or working reduced hours due to the pandemic. UWNEMN COVID-19 Crisis Funds will not be available to individuals who were not working prior to the pandemic, have long been back to work since the pandemic began, and/or lost work for non-pandemic-related matters.

People who live and/or work on the Iron Range can apply for up to $1,000 in assistance, and people who live and/or work in Koochiching County can apply for up to $350. The application and distribution process is similar to other crisis funds UWNEMN has operated:

Individuals can apply online for assistance with their basic living expenses. They will be asked to provide documentation of the expenses as well as other financial documentation. UWNEMN will review applications, and if an application is approved, UWNEMN will directly pay the bills submitted for assistance;
funds will not be distributed directly to individuals.

Those who qualify for UWNEMN’s COVID-19 Crisis Fund can CLICK HERE to apply - or call 218-254-3329 to request a paper application. Iron Range non-profit agencies in need of COVID-19 Crisis Funding can request an application by calling 218-254-3329 or emailing erin@unitedwaynemn.org.

To donate to support the UWNEMN COVID-19 Crisis Fund, CLICK HERE. Donations can also be mailed directly to 608 East Drive, Chisholm, MN 55719. Donors can specify which region their donation should be designated to online or in the memo of their check.