Tragedy at Viking Terrace Unites Community

Viking Terrace is a neighborhood on the Northeast side of the city of Northfield. It is a diverse community in general but it is the heaviest Latino/a inhabited neighborhood. In 2006, Greenvale Park Elementary School, located just over the creek behind Viking Terrace had a total of 14% Latino/a families. From 87 registered Latino/a students 67 had Viking Terrace addresses. This numbers are in high contrast to 5% and 3% for Bridgewater and Sibley elementary schools on the other side of town. The Greenvale Park School numbers are also in contrast with the official 5% reported Latino/a population in Northfield, and with the 4+% for Rice County, but right in line with the 14.4% Hispanic/Latino population of the nation according to 2000 census data.

The fire last Monday that destroyed the home IMG_0108 of Selene and Miguel Rojas was caused by electrical wiring issues according to the fire department’s declarations to the Northfield News yesterday. Whatever the cause, the fact is that the home was destroyed and the family needs support.

On Monday night, I went out to the site and found many neighbors standing outside, then Ray Andrade, the president of St. Dominic Catholic Church’s Hispanic council came out IMG_0114 and we organized a short community meeting to look into what needed to be done.

First we checked the status of the family, we learned that they were staying with Selene’s mother at The Woods II apartment building, that they were o.k. physically, and their short-term housing was arranged. Debbie Haan, the owner of Viking Terrace had also provided factual information about the family’s whereabouts and was working already on temporary housing options together with taking calls of people wanting to donate common home items. Father Dennis Dempsey of St. Dominic’s Catholic Church had also instructed the release of emergency funds from the church for immediate support for the family.

We then moved on to the physical aspects of the property, clean-up, disposal and replacement of the home either with a used one or new.

Debbie had already taken on the task of working with the family and the city to look into the small but very important financial support that they offer. Today, the family was to hear from the city on their approval. If approved, the grant would also pay for the clean-up, an estimated cost of $2,000 according to Debbie.

The next step discussed was getting the word out to the Latino and to the wider community to gather financial support to supplement any city support for a down-payment on a used home that could get the family back on track. Though both Miguel and Selene have jobs, their income won’t cover the full monthly payments of a new home.

As part of getting the local Latino/a leadership involved, I spoke to Angelica Koch from Health Finders, Marco Flores, Ivan Ortiz, Jose Javier, about 4 neighbors and 5 potential volunteers so that we start preparing a crew to dismantle the burnt home and dispose of it in case the city objects to providing support. All of us in the current Latino Leadership Network took roles according to our possibilities. Last night, I heard that the family was getting a good response from the community, some of it organized and some spontaneous. The immediate goal is to make them feel that we are all concerned about their well being, that we care and that we will be there to support them. Building confidence and trust in a new community where one has recently arrived is probably the hardest part of being a recent immigrant. Making this process as easy as possible all the time is of key importance, but putting extra effort during times of crisis is imperative. What we do for one person or family in times of crisis reflects the overall community’s attitudes, and level of caring and compassion, which directly translates into how welcome or not one feels and how newcomers incorporate themselves into the wider community. This is of more importance as congress just defeated the “Dream Act” which would have cleared the way people to pursue a better education.

On the wider-community response front, I spoke to Theresa Friest, at First National Bank on Monday and she got to work very fast to create a bank account to collect community donations to support a down-payment for a new home for the family and other immediate expenses that they may have incurred as a result of this tragedy. The Northfield News published yesterday an article about the incident indicating that the donations were tax deductible. This was a misunderstanding, neither the CAC nor the bank can take donations destined to a specific individual or family as a tax deductible donation. However, the CAC has been engaged in supporting many families in crisis and general tax deductible donations can be made directly through the CAC website (see link below).

To directly contribute to the Rojas family at the First National Bank Account, go to the bank and make a deposit or mail a check with the following information:

Name: Rojas Donation Fund
Account #: 223079
The First National Bank of Northfield
P.O. Box 59
Northfield, MN 55057-0059

To make a general tax deductible donation to the CAC follow this link.

If you want to donate to the Latino Enterprise Center to support work that we do specifically for Latino Families in Northfield follow this link. One of our work areas targets home ownership and part of it is ensuring that families are insured. Though this is ongoing work, we hope to do more education in the community about the importance of insuring our homes.

This tragedy has had a galvanizing effect at least in a small part of the Latino community and has increased the awareness by the wider community of the economic conditions under which many of these families live. As we continue our struggle to improve economic conditions, we invite everyone to become more aware and informed about our city’s diversity, struggles and incredible sense of community.

In a conversation last night with the Rojas family, they told me that they are overwhelmed with the compassion and support that they have received from families all around. Northfield is absolutely a great place to live, though we are all exposed to disasters like this, the assurance that the community cares and the actual response of a community makes a huge difference in making our city family and children friendly. On the flip side, many uninsured homeowners know the risks they are taking, but for too many, it is a choice of buying home insurance or food, and we all know the natural choice.

To close today’s entry, let’s look at this tragedy also from the perspective of how it can benefit our community in general by bringing us together, by creating an opportunity to discuss issues of poverty among us, issues of family support systems and family cohesiveness the two key aspects that are currently sustaining the Rojas family morally and physically.

Let’s also not forget that much of the work we need to do to support this family is tied to issues of financial planning and decent home ownership options for the working poor in Northfield. This issue affects many families independently of their racial background. There are many other pressing social/economic, political issues that we must keep in mind as we watch our city leaders’ daily struggle and hard work toward addressing these important long term issues for our city.

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