Cloquet's Outreach Center is a place to socialize, seek help if needed and have a good meal twice a week.
“I started as a volunteer,” said Bart, who, along with the other volunteers, asked to withhold his last name. “It goes beyond appreciation. I have a love of this place.”
Bart, 48, is employed part time as a cook at the Outreach Center. He has been cooking most of his life, but learned how to cook for a large crowd while in the military.
The aroma of homemade cheesy macaroni with bacon fills the cozy building as Bart prepared lunch Tuesday, Oct. 1. A few people wandered in early. They sit and talk around a table in the commons area. As noon draws closer, the crowd grows larger. By noon, a line of about 15 people had formed.
The Outreach Center has been located at 24 10th St. for about 15 years. Before that, the organization, which is part of the Human Development Center, moved to several other locations.
The program started 26 years ago out of need after the Moose Lake Regional Treatment Center closed. Carlton County residents who had chronic homeless issues, disabilities or chemical and mental health issues didn't have anywhere safe to go in the county.
HDC opened the outreach program in the west end of Cloquet, then moved downtown. Rent increased. It was determined the program needed a permanent home of its own.
In 2004, the building went up. It houses five apartment units for approved tenants with long-term, chronic homelessness, and a commons area for tenants and residents to drop in from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday. The Outreach Center is also open occasionally on weekends for events such as watching football games. On average, the center brings in about 20 people a day to socialize in a safe environment and get a warm meal.
Project supervisor Jackie Meyer shared a recent success story. A woman who was living out of her car with her daughter had nowhere to go. The daughter is in her 20s and has disabilities, and the mother was struggling to take care of her. With Meyer's help, the mother found someone to help care for her daughter while she works in the Grand Rapids area.
Meyer is the only full-time employee at the center. There are also three part-time employees.
“You never know what someone is going through.”
The center is mostly peer-driven by a small group of volunteers, and more volunteers are always needed. Once in a while, the center closes for a day because there aren't enough volunteers.
Julie Wilson, director of the adult and children community support program at HDC, said being homeless is not a choice for the people who come to the center. The top reasons for becoming homeless are loss of a job or no income; mental health or chemical health issues; criminal history and a serious lack of affordable housing in the area. Once people have stable housing, they can begin moving forward in other areas of their lives.
Wilson and Meyer said they have noticed a consistent uptick in people coming in at the end of the month for meals when their food supply at home is getting low.
Tolerance, respect and acceptance are stressed at the center.
“You never know what someone is going through,” Meyer said. “Maybe they just found out their grandmother has cancer.”
Deb, 56, has been a volunteer at the Outreach Center for about six years, said she enjoys welcoming newcomers and making them feel at home.
“Treat others as you would want to be treated,” Deb said. “I love to get to know people and help make a difference.”
She enjoys participating in the activities offered at the center. There is bingo, a women's group and jam sessions, including instruments and singers.
“They’re really good,” Meyer said of the jam sessions.
Many people drop in just to play games such as Skip-Bo. In fact, so many games are played that the decks of cards constantly need to be replaced.
Lunch is served from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday. Leftovers are served the following days.
“There is no waste,” Wilson said.
The center purchases some food from Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank.
“Super One has been donating two bags of baked goods twice a week for 20 years,” Wilson said.
Paula, 55, enjoys attending the women's group on Tuesdays. The Cloquet resident began having seizures in 2008. She was having up to five in a day, or about 30 a month. She was employed locally at the time. The medications didn't help and she had surgery in 2009. She was seizure-free for about 18 months until one day, they came back.
The seizures continued to worsen and she lost her job. Paula stopped going into public places and she became isolated over time. The medications helped slow the seizures. Meyers helped her fill job applications. Paula said she's excited that she’s celebrating three years of working a part-time job.
Because she is unable to drive, Meyers picks her up and brings her to the Outreach Center on Tuesdays.
“The women's group gets me out of the house,” Paula said. “I feel welcome here. It’s a safe environment.”
The women's group does a variety of activities including movie night, game night, arts and crafts, traveling to Duluth for a movie and dinner out as well as help with Christmas shopping around the holidays.
Participants are also encouraged to volunteer in the community. They have volunteered at Friends of Animals, Inter-Faith and other places around the county.
Paula said she's happy that the volunteering helped bring back her self-confidence and she is back to volunteering with her husband again at Ruby’s Pantry.
“This is an awesome program,” Paula said. “It helps people with low income and people with mental health issues in our community.”
She added that if the Outreach Center didn't exist, she would probably be a lot more isolated.
“A family from Silver Bay donates the entire Christmas meal,” Wilson said. She said a family member has used services at the Outreach Center and the family decided not to purchase gifts for each other, but donate the meal to the center instead. Up to 80 people show up to eat meals during the holidays.
“This is a necessary program.” Wilson said.
Spaghetti dinner to benefit Outreach Center
The Outreach Center is preparing to hold its annual fundraiser Oct. 11 at Trapper Pete’s in Scanlon. The proceeds go toward meals and activities at the center, which also needs building updates.
“The floors are our biggest need,” Wilson said.
The center will provide the ingredients for the spaghetti dinner and the restaurant will cook the food. Volunteers will serve the meal. Curbside pickup will be available.
The event, which will include a silent auction, usually raises an average of $3,000; Meyer's goal this year is $4,000.
The spaghetti dinner and silent auction fundraiser is 4-6:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for ages 8 and under. Tickets are available at the door. Call 218-491-4293 for takeout; don't call the restaurant for take out at the event.
Outreach Center by numbers
- In 2018, a total of 3161 females and 3689 males visited.
- The average age group to visit was 25-64, with a total of 6,113.
- There were 66 visitors ages 6-18, 281 visitors ages 19-24, 246 visitors ages 65 and older and 10 visitors ages 5 and under.
- Of the 2018 visitors, 5,077 were Caucasian, 1,623 were American Indian, 11 were African-American and 134 were unknown.