When news broke in August that Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban would be coming to the Midwest, Sonia Sahar Anunciacion felt compelled to help.
Anunciacion is a Shakopee resident and business owner of Under the Lote Tree, where she creates Islamic workbooks and storybooks for kids.
She also has personal ties to the current refugee situation. Her parents are originally from Afghanistan, and she still has family members living there.
With all of the news brought to her attention, she said she couldn’t help but get involved.
“When I was hearing about the U.S. bringing in a lot of the refugees, I felt like I had to do something,” Anunciacion said.
Despite a lack of fundraising experience, Anunciacion suggested to her husband that they start collecting donations to send to arriving refugees. The couple put a flyer out and set up a few donation drives around the Twin Cities metropolitan area, hoping for any generosity to come their way.
Since starting her work in August, Anunciacion said she has received an overwhelming number of donations from around the country, with most coming from Minnesota. She also has had many volunteers help with organizing donation items and packing them up for delivery.
Many Minnesotans even wrote welcome letters for families getting settled. Anunciacion said these acts of kindness from local residents did not go unnoticed.
“I wasn’t surprised by the local community coming together, because I know Minnesotans are very generous and kind,” Anunciacion said. “But at the same time, it just gives you so much hope to see that kindness and everyone pitching in to give what they can.”
Donations often consist of clothes, blankets and diapers. They are then organized in boxes either by type of item or added to boxes specially customized for a family.
The donation boxes are stored in Anunciacion’s basement before being packed into a rented 20-foot U-Haul moving truck. They are then either delivered to refugees in Minnesota or delivered to an acquaintance who works at, and transports donations to, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, where nearly 13,000 refugees currently reside.
Anunciacion said refugees at Fort McCoy have been grateful for the donations, since conditions at the base are not ideal.
“The situation isn’t good in Fort McCoy or in a lot of the bases,” Anunciacion said. “They’re low on diapers, formula and clothing. A lot of them are still wearing the same clothes that they arrived in, and it’s been over a month now.”
To help assist these families, Anunciacion continues to set up fundraisers, donation drives and relationships with companies willing to donate.
She said many refugees are currently requesting donations for winter clothing, shoes, diapers, formula, food, tea and tea kettles.
Anunciacion continues to take donations from those offering through an Amazon wishlist she created with people’s requests. Purchasing items off the list directly ships them to Fort McCoy for refugees.
She is also looking for people willing to sponsor a family. A sponsor would purchase all items off a specialized wishlist for a family in Minnesota or Fort McCoy and bring them to Anunciacion, who would then take care of delivering the donations.
Anunciacion has already received donations from Target, Home Depot, and Lowe’s. She also is awaiting a response from Best Buy in the hopes of having iPads and laptops donated that refugees can use for future work opportunities and taking English Language Learner (ELL) classes.
A fundraiser called “A Night for Afghanistan” was scheduled for Oct. 8 at the Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth to raise money for displaced families in Afghanistan. Anunciacion also announced she is volunteering for Team Rubicon and the Minnesota Twins for a winter clothing drive supporting families in Fort McCoy and Camp Atterbury in Indiana. The drive is 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 9 at Target Field.
Creating all of these avenues of giving is important to Anunciacion, who said people may not realize just how little arriving refugees have now.
“It makes me emotional because they’ve been through so much … they left their family, they left their homes and their personal belongings and came here. Now they have to start over again,” Anunciacion said.
As of late September, Anunciacion said donations have helped around 27 refugees in Minnesota and plenty more families at Fort McCoy. She said she appreciates the help from Minnesotans and beyond, believing these donations continue to change the lives of many.
“They’re so appreciative of all the support that Minnesota has provided for them,” Anunciacion said. “They’re all such amazing families, each and every one of them.”
A Shakopee banker alleges she was placed on unpaid leave by her employer following a Facebook comment criticizing the Shakopee Public Schools board chair.
Tara McNeally, a Shakopee resident with two children in district schools, works as a personal banker for HomeTown Bank branches in Shakopee located on Vierling Drive West and in Shakopee High School.
HomeTown Bank’s branch in the school is a “community partner” with the district, where McNeally said she works for a few hours during the week to help with personal banking and mentor high school students in marketing and bank telling.
A school district press release stated that “At no point did anyone from the district request that the bank suspend its employee. Nor did anyone from the district ask the bank to take any disciplinary action. Any actions taken by the bank are independent of the partner’s relationship with the district.”
While some of McNeally’s work takes place in the high school building, she and her fellow HomeTown Bank branch coworkers are not employees of the school district.
McNeally attended the Sept. 27 Shakopee School Board meeting.
During the public comment section, Shakopee resident Amanda Enright spoke about how masks had affected her child with disabilities in the classroom.
McNeally took issue with a moment in Enright’s time speaking where School Board Chair Kristi Peterson looked at a projector screen. The screen displayed a timer showing how much allocated time each speaker had remaining.
McNeally voiced her opinion on Facebook that night via a comment left on a post about the meeting: “I personally was really disappointed in board member Kristi Peterson tonight. She was turning around to watch the clock time while Amanda was speaking about her daughter’s struggle with her disability and masking. She did it multiple times! So rude. I know that most people don’t have ill will towards these children … but that lady showed she has NO HEART! Who does that???”
An Oct. 5 press release from the school district said that Peterson’s glances at the screen were not directly related to Enright’s comments.
“It is important for the community to know that Board Chair Peterson’s actions were consistent between all speakers. Due to major technology problems, the monitor positioned in front of the board chair was not functioning. The Board Chair turned periodically during each presentation to check the stopwatch displayed only on the large screen behind her,” the press release said.
Peterson said in her own statement released Oct. 5 that her glances at the timer were her performing her board chair duties of “leading the meeting and ensuring all six speakers received the same time during the public comment portion.”
“To the speaker who felt I was not listening to the concerns she had about her children, please know that I, along with the rest of the school board, did hear your heartfelt remarks,” Peterson said in her statement. “We appreciate all community members who have the courage to come to a meeting and speak to the board.”
McNeally said she received a text from her boss on Sept. 28 asking her to remove the comment. She said her boss also noted that the school was upset.
When reached out to by the newspaper, HomeTown Bank declined to comment.
Later, she said she and her boss spoke about the situation. She alleges that her boss reiterated the request for her to take the post down.
McNeally alleges that when she asked who had complained to HomeTown Bank regarding the comment, her boss answered it was Peterson and another unnamed school board member. McNeally said she then decided not to remove the comment.
In her statement, Peterson said she has no history interacting with HomeTown Bank, especially regarding the situation with McNeally.
“It is 100% untrue that I called HomeTown Bank,” Peterson said. “I have never called or have spoken to the manager of the bank. I have never stepped inside either Shakopee bank locations. In addition, I never asked for the post to be removed.”
“If they wanted to get a hold of me, they definitely could have,” McNeally said. “Why is it going directly to my employer?”
On Sept. 29, Superintendent Dr. Mike Redmond sent a letter to HomeTown Bank with a screenshot of McNeally’s Facebook comment. Redmond addressed this in the letter, saying he found McNeally’s post to be “inappropriate and demeaning.”
“The characterization in this post is untrue,” Redmond wrote in the letter. “If this same post were made by an employee of Shakopee Public Schools, it would be considered insubordination, and the event would be referred to our Human Resources Department for appropriate disciplinary action.”
McNeally said after completing her shift on Sept. 29, she spoke with her boss over the phone and was told she was being placed on unpaid leave for two weeks.
According to McNeally, her boss said the company has social media policies and said McNeally was hired to work at the high school branch and would not have a position available there or at the Vierling Drive West location during ongoing investigations.
She also alleges that in the same call, her boss said Redmond had been the one to reach out. According to McNeally, her boss then said she never told McNeally that Peterson had reached out to HomeTown Bank.
The district press release states that the district and HomeTown Bank “had conversations regarding a number of issues, including a series of alleged actions” by McNeally.
McNeally said she wasn’t sure what the conversations regarded.
McNeally said she was shocked when she found out she was being suspended from her work.
Last week, Rep. Erik Mortensen (R-Shakopee) created a GoFundMe on behalf of McNeally titled “Help Tara Pay Her Bills!” As of Oct. 6, the fundraiser has collected over $8,000.
McNeally said her unpaid leave is scheduled to end later next week. She said she has been unable to get in touch with her employer since Sept. 29 and is unsure on what is to happen after her suspension ends.
In Redmond’s letter to her employer, he stated that McNeally “may certainly be present at Sweeney Elementary and West Middle School in the role of a parent. She may not be present in any other part of the school district, without my express permission, until the investigation is concluded.”
The district later clarified that “Should there be a desire or need for additional activity as a parent, this is typically acceptable. For example, a parent in this situation can certainly attend a school board meeting.”