Oasis celebrates 25 years in Morrison County

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

Oasis of Central Minnesota will be celebrating 25 years of helping people in the Morrison County area in 2013.

A year-long celebration, which includes 20 years of the Paint A Thon, begins Friday with a kick-off party at the Great River Arts Center in downtown Little Falls, from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. The gala occasion will go hand in hand with a sponsorship drive.

Cake and coffee will be available, along with music. Everyone is invited.

Oasis started in 1988 under the name “Share A Meal.” Bill and Judith Hecht, Greg and Vicki Spofford and Bob and Jane Barnes from the Little Falls area were instrumental in starting the program. They felt the need to do something for the community.

Today, Oasis of Central Minnesota has grown to include the Oasis Paint A Thon, the Oasis Fix Up, which repairs homes and Ruby’s Pantry, which monthly distributes low-cost food to approximately 600 people.

“We were young families back then and wanted to both help the community and teach our children about the value of community,” said Judith.

Share A Meal began as a community gathering the last Thursday of the month, serving a function for those who had more month at the end of the money than vice versa.

It later evolved to every Thursday.

In about 1989, “Oasis” was added to the name. The founders were interested in expanding the program to more than meals.

“We wanted to provide food, fun and fellowship,” said Greg Spofford, whose mother Gerry was the first executive director.

The three families reached out to friends and the Franciscan Sisters for help.

The first event started with about 30 people arriving for supper. Today, Share A Meal feeds about 70 – 80 people each week.

For a short time, the group did both parent education and child development classes for the young families who came to the Thursday evening supper. There were other opportunities offered such as presentations on nutrition, along with projects for the children. There was also a cooking class by the University of Minnesota Extension Office, monthly games of bingo, an occasional speaker and musical groups that played during supper.

In the early 1990s, a precursor to Ruby’s Pantry was developed. People could purchase approximately $35 worth of groceries for $3. Food banks donated the surplus food to Share A Meal.

Spofford said he remembers providing shelter for homeless families in an apartment at the Pine Edge Inn during the beginning of the program.

“That lasted only about one year,” he said. “But we helped about seven families during that time.”

For the first three years or so, the Thursday meals moved around to various churches and Little Falls Senior Center.

In the mid-1990s a more permanent spot was located at First Lutheran Church in Little Falls. It’s been there ever since.

Today, a large variety of groups volunteer their time to make meals and feed those who enjoy Oasis Share A Meal.

In the late 1990s, Marge Young became the executive director of Oasis Share A Meal. Carol Schmidt took over in 1999 for 12 years. When she retired, Tim Poland took the top spot.

In 1993, the Oasis Paint A Thon was added to the program. Kevin Hoskins, a professional painter, started with the program at that time. Some other members had experience with Habitat for Humanity and brought that enthusiasm to the table.

“The first Paint A Thon meeting saw more than 300 people attend,” said Hoskins. “We went out and helped mostly the elderly spruce up their homes.”

As of 2012, approximately 175 homes in Morrison County have been painted through Oasis Paint A Thon.

“People would apply for the service, houses were evaluated for what they needed and painting groups were formed,” said Hoskins. “That’s when we learned there was more need out there than just paint. So, in 2000, repair work was added to the Paint A Thon.”

Hoskins contacted those in the community who had carpenter skills to donate their time, tools and supplies.

“We have a small budget for fixing up homes,” he said. “Today, many of our carpenters who give of their time to help over the years are retiring. We are looking for the next generation who have a strong feeling of community.”

“This is a viable community program,” said Judy. “We would like to see entire families get involved.”

“It’s all about teaching the next generation about community,” said Greg.

Hoskins said he still gets excited when he drives by and sees work the Paint A Thon has done.

In 2012, Oasis of Central Minnesota started a Ruby’s Pantry at Bethel Lutheran Church in Little Falls. When the Ruby’s Pantry in Ramey grew too large, Oasis contacted the organization to add one in Little Falls. To date, Little Falls has hosted five distribution days, each on the fourth Monday of the month.

“There are no income requirements and people may pick up approximately $50 worth of food for $15,” said Poland. “$12 of that goes to Ruby’s Pantry and $3 to the community to help others.”

Oasis of Central Minnesota looks to the future to provide affordable and/or emergency housing. It would also like to improve some of the local transportation issues.

“We are learning that people who want to come to the weekly Share A Meal and Ruby’s Pantry are unable to, due to lack of transportation,” said Poland.

Oasis would also like to create a resource directory for the entire county, a booklet that would help point people in the right direction for help. By doing that, Poland said gaps in the area services may be identified and Oasis could assist in closing them.

“We want to recognize needs of the community and be able to grow,” he said.