Willmar area Facebook group grew out of pandemic, continues to help families with advice, donations


— People in the Willmar area may not have realized they needed something like the Facebook group It Takes a Village — Willmar until it was here.

The group launched in March 2020 just as many parts of the community were closing down at the beginning of a global pandemic.

Since it started, the group of 6,100 area residents has shown a caring and generous side in the community. It was always there, but the Facebook group brought that spirit into the open.

Renee Bart, a relative newcomer to the Willmar community, started the group in 2020 as a way for people to help each other at a time of shortages and uncertainty.

"I was hoping to find a centralized place for people to post their needs and resources in the community as things might be getting hard in the near future — no such luck," Bart, 30, wrote in her first post on the group. "So, if the impending health crisis means your family is now in need of some extra support, you have some resources to share, or you see something in the community that could help, your posts are welcome here."

At first, the group was a way for people to find face masks, canning jars, toilet paper and other items in short supply. Restaurants and other businesses used it to tell people when they were reopening.

Over time it has helped members find someone willing to help move furniture and become a go-to source for finding lost pets.

Need advice on hiring a handyman? Want to know if a contractor does good work? Not sure how to get your kids registered for school or find school supply lists? Someone in the group will probably be able to help.

Advice and offers of help can pile up quickly when someone asks a question. Sometimes the first response shows up in minutes.

Posts remind people of food distributions or community center events.

Posts about missing pets or found pets are frequent. So are posts about stolen bikes. Pets are frequently found. Bikes are found, too, but not as often.

The generosity in the community can be impressive. Several people will offer a ride to St. Cloud when someone asks for it.

If someone posts about a family starting over from scratch and needing everything for a new home, offers of beds, dressers and tables are numerous.

A discussion about the best school supplies can grow to dozens of posts.

People in all stages in life use the site. A woman of limited means seeks some help in finding work-appropriate clothing to wear to her new job. A mom wants to know who might have a paying job for her 14-year-old.

To someone asking for large rocks for their garden, a reply included a photo of a farm's rockpile. Come on over, the post said, and if you want more, you can pick up more in the pasture.

"It's been cool to watch it kind of grow and develop into its own thing," Bart said. She had moved to Willmar for a job several years ago. During the pandemic she started a graduate program online and has since moved back to her hometown of Albertville. She is pursuing her license in alcohol and drug counseling.

Even after moving to Albertville, she has continued to be one of the moderators. She also moderates a Buy Nothing group in Albertville.

As the group grew and expanded from the original purpose, she has added moderators to help keep up with the volume of traffic.

When she wondered if the group should continue recently, she asked the group if anyone would be interested in becoming moderators. "I had tons of people say how much the group has impacted their lives and would be willing to help in whatever capacity they could," she said.

Bart said she's not aware of another group quite like it. The area has many sell/swap groups and groups that post free items. None of them seem to offer what It Takes a Village does.

"When I talk to people, there's nothing quite like this group in the community," she said. "Now that I've moved, there's nothing quite like the It Takes a Village group down here. ... It's a cool concept to have in a community."

Bart, 30, seems a little surprised herself at how the group has evolved.

If she wanted to start one somewhere else, "I don't even know how I would go about doing that, because it came about so organically."

Another feature of It Takes a Village — Willmar is its lack of political comment.

"When we started, the only rule or expectation I had for people was to be kind," Bart said.

Early on, she said, she called the group a no-judgment zone, and her attitude was "the world is crazy right now, we don't need another space to be judgmental, we don't need to be putting people down; we need to be supportive of each other."

A handful of people who couldn't follow the rule to be kind are no longer welcome in the group, she said.

Facebook has filters that have helped moderators catch certain words or block outside websites, and they have helped.

"My philosophy with groups in general is it's not for everybody," she said. "The space is unique to the people it serves, and sometimes it's not a good fit."