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Equitable learning pod in Minneapolis at risk of closing without funding help

About the possible closure of Hope Youth Center, fifth grader Brandon Solis said, "It would be heartbreaking."

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — An equitable learning pod in south Minneapolis is helping students who are distance learning get the support they need. But organizers say without more funding, they risk closing at the end of the month. 

Hope Youth Center currently helps about 35 students with distance learning while also providing enrichment activities. The service is free and open to all students ages 10 and up. 

Since November, the learning pod has been running out of Allina Health's corporate headquarters in the Midtown Exchange building. With many employees still working from home due to the pandemic, Allina Health donated the space. 

RELATED: Community learning pods get boost with Allina Health office space donation

"We saw a need and we filled it," said Valerie Quintana, one of the co-founders of The Real Minneapolis

The nonprofit was formed by Quintana, along with Mary Claire Francois and Marni Lewis-Harvey, after the killing of George Floyd to address the needs of the community — especially focusing on the youth. 

But as a new nonprofit, they have struggled to secure significant funding. They have reached out to the city, school district, corporations, and others about possible funding, and looked into grants. 

"Since we've opened our doors we've only received $20,000 from two organizations for which we're very grateful, but $20,000 to run a facility day in and day out. We've been full-time volunteers for nine months now and so we really are just setting the boundary that we're unable to keep our doors open unless the real Minneapolis steps up," Quintana said. 

"It's just not sustainable," Francois added. 

RELATED: How 'The Real Minneapolis' is planting hope in the city after unrest

Since opening, more than 50 kids have used the Hope Youth Center's resources. Some have returned to in-person learning, but they still help about 35 students. Francois said more than 20 are also on a waiting list. 

95% of the students are BIPOC and 85% qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

Credit: Heidi Wigdahl
Hope Youth Center currently helps about 35 students with distance learning while also providing enrichment activities.

The program not only offers desk space, WiFi and other distance learning resources, but enrichment activities like art and music therapy. 

"Normally I would be at home staying in my bed and not at a desk. So it helps me stay awake," said Makyla Davis, an eighth grader at Clara Barton Open School. 

Brandon Solis, a fifth grader at Partnership Academy, added, "I like that they can help me with my math homework and that they have an art room." 

Hope Youth Center's neighbors at Midtown Global Market have also stepped up to help. 

Sean Sherman, CEO and founder of The Sioux Chef and the nonprofit NāTIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), said they have been focused on food relief from their Indigenous Food Lab in Midtown Global Market. 

"We actually have 10,000 meals a week going out of this kitchen right now to many different tribal communities," Sherman said. 

In January, NāTIFS sponsored a Midtown Global Market gift card for each student. 

"We were able to supply them with some funding that we had so that they could have some healthy meals and support some of these great entrepreneurs here in the market. We're just always going to be here for education," Sherman said. 

Credit: Heidi Wigdahl
Hope Youth Center's neighbors at Midtown Global Market have also stepped up to help.

In February, Pham's Rice Bowl started feeding the students. 

"I said, 'You know what, I need to do something,'" said Trung Pham, owner of Pham's Rice Bowl. 

Pham has been providing meals and has now connected to Second Harvest Heartland. 

"We're currently working through a program trying a partnership where we can begin to order food and cook and deliver to the kids every single day," Pham said. 

Pham said he is also working with his daughter, a sophomore at University of St. Thomas, to try and recruit college students to volunteer at Hope Youth Center. 

As COVID-19 cases decline and more kids return to the classroom, Francois said there is still a need for learning pods. 

She said some parents are not comfortable sending their kids back to school. 

"Their parents may be essential workers and they can't risk a child bringing home something and then having to take time off," Francois said. 

If the center closed, Solis said, "It would be heartbreaking." 

The Real Minneapolis is still looking for corporate donors. They have also set up a GoFundMe for those who would like to help.