Some 2,000 volunteers cleaned yards and removed debris in north Minneapolis Saturday. Many of them had never visited this part of the metro before. They had two tasks: helping clean up after the tornado that struck two weeks ago, and showing the low-income and largely minority residents that other Minnesotans care about them.
The volunteers reported first to the Brookdale Mall in Brooklyn Center, and took buses to the storm area.
By 8 a.m. a wide line of people stretched outside the mall, around two sides of the empty Macy's store, and into the parking lot.
Inside the vacant department store they got instructions from Andy Barnett of Habitat for Humanity.
"We need to go out there with the right attitude. So today is about cleaning up, but more than that, it's about being the face of hope and compassion to a neighborhood that's hurting," said Barnett. "So don't get so wrapped up with your head down pulling a rake that you miss the chance to interact with neighbors, and give them that smile and that word of encouragement."
Barnett told the group to be vigilant about their own safety by paying attention to debris, communicating with the rest of their team, and taking frequent water breaks. Then he divided them into groups.
A group of volunteers primarily from the northern metro ended up with the designation 3H.
On the bus, Vikktoria and John Crist sat about five rows back. Vikktoria Crist is a nurse from south Minneapolis who volunteers with a homeless crisis line.
"I wanted to do something physically helpful," she said. "We were just talking about the fact that north Minneapolis is the one place that could not afford to have this happen. It's already an area that has a lot of issues. Even putting in just a couple hours feels great to me."
Another few rows back, Ray Colby was getting to know other members of the 3H team. The tornado just missed Colby house's in Robbinsdale.
"it was sort of disturbing. I understand it's sort of the luck of the draw, but I still want to help," he said.
Colby said he tries to buy from stores and restaurants in north Minneapolis. He thinks other suburban residents don't because the area has a stigma that there's crime everywhere. Colby said he hopes this exposure will help change the perception of north Minneapolis in the suburbs.
"I hope maybe in a smaller part of the community surrounding north Minneapolis, that maybe there will be something lasting here for a while," said Colby.
The bus stopped at the corner of Lyndale and Lowry avenues. Before he sent them off, 3H team leader Ron Hanson reinforced the message the volunteers had already been hearing all day: that this isn't just about physical labor.
"Keep your eye out for people who look like they need to talk. That's a big part of this, is letting them know that people care about them and that we're here to help them."
At two homes, no one came to the door. The 3H group skipped many homes with yards that had already been cleared of debris. At other houses, they contemplated signs that warned of dogs or barred solicitors.
At one home, a man answered the door with a small boy clinging to his pants.
The group quickly raked the yard, put trash and pieces of roofing tiles into black plastic bags, and gathered scattered limbs and branches into piles.
Over the next few hours they walked up and down streets doing the same kind of work. Few residents came out to talk, until the group stopped at Judy Her's house. She lives there with five family members. Judy's mother, who only speaks Hmong, fluttered around saying "thank you."
"My mom was very happy," said Judy Her. "She kept saying, 'Oh my gosh. They're outside cleaning our house! God bless them all. I'm going to bless them all.' She's just very happy."
The Her house didn't have a lot of damage. But Judy Her said they wouldn't have gotten around to cleaning the yard for a while. And she said it meant a lot to the family that people took the time to help.