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The Legion’s Randy Olson kicks into high gear in tough times

Randy Olson, left, of Winnebago Post 82 stands outside Willmar Post 167 with Department NEC Man Bill Barbknecht of Underwood Post 489. Barbknecht brought bags of Quilts of Valor masks from Perham destined for the Sioux Falls VA Hospital. Olson leads a delivery network of donated goods for people who care for veterans’ health.

Get the goods to the needs

WINNEBAGO — When life knocked this Legionnaire down, he got right back up.

Randy Olson of the 2nd District is an Army veteran and an electrician who worked on a contract basis at Birds Eye Foods in Waseca until the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions kicked in. Deemed nonessential, he laid off.

The Winnebago resident wasn’t one to sulk around the house, so he dived into the work of The American Legion. Not merely in his community. Not merely in the 2nd District. The entire state. It began with his efforts in the nearby town of Wells.

Wells Post 210

Olson recalled reading old minutes from Mankato Post 11, and he likes to think about the doughboys did things in the early days of the Legion.

He recalls how if a veteran’s family stove didn’t work, they took care of it.
The Legionnaires had each other’s backs in the military. And they were going to have each other’s backs in civilian life, too.

Wells Post 210 is the finest Post home in Faribault County, he said. It has a full kitchen, full bar and an elevator. It kitty-corner from a VFW Post, and, too often, they compete, rather than work together.

Over the years, the Wells Post leaders grew stuck in their ways, Olson said, and the young members had little say in Post matters. Many young members joined Bricelyn Post 165 instead. Olson said he helped young members transfer back to the Wells Legion and to change the mindset that had prevented change.

“Bricelyn knew it was better for the Legion, SAL and the Auxiliary,” Olson said.

He wanted to get them back up and running without just relying on gambling and alcohol to write checks. And the young members wanted an active Post.

It was Lent, so they put on a fish fry. Word spread, and the first night, they had 66 meals, plus were given donations. The second night, they served 80 meals and received donations.

They expanded to a second night a week, doing Fridays and Saturday, and Lent was over, so they served cheeseburgers. Then they worked with Conger Meat Market and sold ribeye steak meals. That sold out at 72, and they had to switch back to cheeseburgers for a few remaining customers.

“You just need a new, younger driving force to step it up and drive the thing,” Olson said.

Food drive

Olson’s trips around Minnesota include this one to Tricia Pagel with Redwood Falls Unit 38. She took the masks to the Sioux Falls VA Hospital.

Trish Pagel of Slayton, an American Legion Rider who is active in the Auxiliary, too, coordinates a food drive in Murray County. It gave Olson the idea to run one for Faribault County after he had heard the Faribault County Food Shelf was denied food at a large grocery chain.

“He was expecting four cases of mandarin oranges. He got four cans,” Olson said. “They food was going to day cares as they had the top priority.”

So Olson started the Faribault County Food Drive, with donation sites in Winnebago, Blue Earth and Wells.
(Helpful reminder: Blue Earth is in Faribault County. Faribault is in Rice County. Mankato is in Blue Earth County.)

“If our food shelves can’t even get food, we need to step it up now,” he said.

Olson touched base with Hutchinson Post 96 Commander Tim Burley, who had a donation of Land O’ Lakes dairy products for the Eagle’s Healing Nest and a Hutchinson food shelf and ended up with more than enough. He gave the rest to Olson for Faribault County. They met May 7 at a Speedway in Chaska to do the transfer.

Olson put the butter and cheese in his Dodge Caravan and blasted the A/C.

“My hands were cold. I almost wore gloves,” he said.

Meanwhile, many farmers under contract with meat processors were having to euthanize livestock. And the independent farmers had animals they could not sell. The closing of restaurants, cafeterias and other retail dining had impacted the national market.
Olson knew the farmers in his area, and one of them, Doug Jenkins of Winnebago, was an independent who had no place to send his hogs.

Olson began coordinating the sale of hogs to Legion Family members. Sue and Paul Edwards of Brainerd ordered six. Larry Pocrnich of Hibbing ordered a hog. Burley got one, too. Roseville’s Dee Dee Buckley and Lino Lake’s Patti Coleman split one. The sales continue to happen. Olson ordered four, some for veterans in need, some for the local food shelf.

Blue Earth Locker handled the processing at first, but now several do: Conger Meat Market, Vernon Center Locker, Fairmont Butcher Shop, Welcome Meats, among others. It ends up being about $385 for 150-200 pounds of pork, depending on what kind of meat the consumer wishes. It’s handy to own a chest freezer.

Olson would be happy to get a list of veteran farmers who need help getting products sold. His number is 507-525-6532.

Masks

Networks of cloth mask makers sprung up across Minnesota in the wake of the COVID-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, the Department of Minnesota formed an ad hoc COVID-19 Committee with several purposes, such as using video conferencing for communication.

But it also was coordinating donations. Olson is on the committee and is charged with coordinating the donations, especially masks, going from mask makers to the five Minnesota Veterans Homes and to four VA Hospitals (Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Fargo and Sioux Falls).

Some of the Auxiliary mask makers in his neck of the woods are Donna Johnson of Fairmont and her group and Betty Huber Snyder of Blue Earth. Kathy Tenney of Fairmont and Sheryl Aukes of Elmore also were making masks. Aukes even made ones with a Velcro top for filters. Olson called it a Cloth 95 mask. The Legion Family in Austin also was cranking out masks for Olson.

Legionnaire Randy Olson stands with Past Auxiliary Department President Donna Arends, left, and Auxiliary 2nd Vice President Mary Kuperus, right.

He began taking them to the Luverne Veterans Home, and now he coordinates getting them all over the region, from many mask makers. That means meeting other Legion Family members halfway, such as Battle Lake’s Bill Barbknecht to get masks to Fergus Falls or Buckley to reach Silver Bay. He has handed donations to Legion member Sue Register, who works at the Hastings Veterans Home. Some of the items are even much-needed face shields. The SAL’s Ervin “Twiggy” Ruiz of Inver Grove Heights has helped Olson shuttle goods to northern locales, too.

But, to be sure, it’s not the only donation network. The Auxiliary has its own system, too, and Peggy Tesdahl, Carol Kottom and Laverne Rumsey, among others, have sewed thousands of masks for veterans. There was a rumor that they get tossed out after a single use.

“All of these homemade masks are re-used over and over,” said Auxiliary Secretary Sandie Deutsch. “They are not thrown away after one use. I spoke directly with the hospitals and homes.”

In mid-May, Twiggy Ruiz picked up masks made by Chaska-based My Pillow and brought them to Avon, where Barbknecht met him and hauled them up to the Fergus Falls Veterans Home. Jennifer Havlick of Two Harbors met Ruiz in Moose Lake, then delivered a box of My Pillow masks to Silver Bay.

Olson brought masks to Past Department Commander Mike Schaffer in Jackson, where the Fulda resident brought them to the Luverne Veterans Home.

Olson met Kenneth Gibson, a volunteer at the Minneapolis Veterans Home, in Owatonna. He met Register of the Hastings Veterans Home in Owatonna, too, right there in the parking lot of Fleet Farm on Bridge Street.

The list goes on. And expands.

Olson also is working with county veteran service officers for Ramsey County to deliver masks to places for unsheltered veterans. They meet along Plato Boulevard in St. Paul.

Olson wants Legion Family members to know this: If you have masks and you need to get them donated, no matter where in Minnesota you reside, contact him. He knows where they are needed most. His number is 507-525-6532.

My Pillow

How the heck is The American Legion getting masks from a big company like My Pillow?

Olson met founder Michael Lindell at two Donald Trump campaign rallies. The first time, they met at the line to get in. At the second one, they were inside waiting in a line for Trump to appear and began talking.

Lindell asked Olson what he did, because Olson was wearing a “Veterans for Trump” T-shirt. He explained he did a lot of volunteer work for veterans.

“He said if there was anything I can do for you and the veterans, just give me a shout,” Olson said.

My Pillow founder Mike Lindell stands in line with Winnebago’s Randy Olson to see President Donald Trump during a rally at Target Center in Minneapolis in October 2019.

When the news came out that My Pillow would switch from manufacturing pillows to masks, Olson decided to reach out. He sent emails, but those came back saying the company wasn’t making pillows. Olson realized he needed to speak to a real-live person.

He reached a gentleman and told the story about Lindell’s promise. Eventually, someone from the company got back to him about the price per box of masks. Olson had to explain again he wanted a donation.

Ever persistent, he sent them photos of Lindell and him together and said he wanted donated masks.

A week later, boxes of masks showed up at the Minneapolis and Hastings veterans homes.

Olson thanked My Pillow and requested three more boxes for homes in Luverne, Fergus Falls and Silver Bay. My Pillow asked that he pick them up at its Shakopee distribution center.

He did and put the Legion’s network to use.

Eagan-based WSI Sports and Maplewood’s 3M are now helping out, too, he said.

Veteran Enterprises
In April, Minnesota National Guard and Army Reserve veteran Garth Carlson purchased the former elementary school in Winnebago from the city. Carlson has founded a company called Veteran Enterprises LTD and plans to lease space in the building to area veterans organizations, in addition to other groups and for community events.

Right now, the CVSO has a satellite office there, and so does a veteran assistance officer out of Mankato.

Meanwhile, Carlson has allowed the space to be used for free meal distribution during the pandemic. Veteran Enterprises and the Post 82 hand out free meals in Winnebago on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to veterans and those in need. The pork was donated by Fitzsimmons Pork of Good Thunder.

“We are showing the community we are helping,” Olson said. “Some people give donations to keep it going.”

Department Chaplain Betty Jass of Lake Crystal has volunteered. So has Mankato Post 11 Commander James Olson. Randy Olson and Carlson want to use the proceeds from the free-meal donations to help 10 area Posts with start-up costs once the state says they can reopen.
Olson said he is concerned about addiction treatment centers in his part of the state, as many have closed down — some for good because of the COVID restrictions.

He said many addicts are experiencing relapses and anxiety. The nearest treatment place is Fountain Centers in Albert Lea. He noted people who go into social work in his area worry about having steady careers without needing to move to the Twin Cities. He and Carlson hope the former school can be used as a treatment center for the area.

“We want to keep our workers here in our county,” Olson said.

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