DULUTH — The University of Minnesota Duluth Honorary Student Association hosted a talent show, “Bulldogs Got Talent,” at Weber Music Hall on Thursday.
But behind the glitz and glamour, UMD pays tribute to students Elizabeth Breitbach and Isaac Conrad, who hope to be the change for the families residing in the Steve O’Neil apartments.
The organization raises funds for a transportation shuttle for families living in the Central Hillside building for the homeless. Honors students had spread the word before the Thanksgiving holiday, asking for donations. To date, they have raised $8,000.
“With what I’ve seen working in Duluth’s Central Hillside, transportation is always the biggest issue when it comes to any issue,” Breitbach said. “Most of these people don’t have a car. So wherever they go they have to walk or take public transport, which is difficult when you have three children and one in a stroller.”
The group aims to raise at least $2,000 more to buy the shuttle. “Bulldogs Got Talent” is a way to share the mission with community members and collect more donations.
“Duluth has lots of opportunities and places for kids to explore,” Conrad said. “But a lot of the kids at (Steve O’Neil) didn’t have that opportunity.”
The Steve O’Neil Apartments were built in 2015 as permanent housing for families facing homelessness. The building also includes the CHUM’s six-unit emergency family shelter. It offers various programs for families, such as an after-school program, family coaching, growth group, infant and toddler program, and gardening program.
UMD’s honors program has been involved since its opening, offering after-school tutoring.
After attending after-school programs, Breitbach quickly felt a need for stability, healthier relationships, and better access to higher education. Students played games, tutored, and connected regularly with families and children.
Shortly after Breitbach’s experience, the pandemic hit.
“COVID has made all the situations in this environment so much worse just because of the domestic violence, the substance abuse issues have gotten worse, especially when you’re just stuck in this isolation,” Breitbach said.
In-person sessions have been canceled, posing a challenge for honors students to stay connected while remaining distant. “We need to bring our own twists and creativity into virtual contact with the kids, so we’ve implemented a virtual tutoring program,” Breitbach said.
UMD students created YouTube videos, dropped off packages for kids to use while watching the videos, and hosted “Sunday Fun-Day,” where students introduced creative learning experiences like l using slime to explain chemistry. Soon, virtual learning experiences spawned the idea of a virtual-private talent show for students and families.
Students dropped off pizzas for families so they could enjoy a meal while watching the talent show. Soon, the kids and their moms were taking over Zoom with a slew of performances, an experience the UMD students brought to life with their in-person show “Bulldogs Got Talent.”
“There are a lot of students and people in the UMD community who believe in the power of community and just take care of our neighbors. So it’s really about spreading that message. Seeing a positive response from people who want giving and caring people is comforting. It makes you believe in what you’re doing,” Conrad said.
The organization accepts donations via Venmo or by check. Venmo payments can be found at @SONAShuttle; checks can be made payable to the Honors University Students’ Association and mailed to 21 EduE 412 Library Drive, Duluth, MN.
“Bulldogs Got Talent” was free and open to the public. Participants voted for their favorite performance with $1. Funds obtained from the event will be donated directly to the shuttle.