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Faith has taken action for 10 years

Some are terminally ill, others have a hard time getting around town, many more have no one else to lean on.

So these seniors rely on Faith in Action and people like Gisela Witgert.

"You meet the neatest people and they really appreciate the help," said Witgert, a volunteer driver with Faith in Action for nine years.

"People are so fast with everything today. Other volunteers maybe hear a thank you from time to time. These people are so kind. I've never met anyone who didn't have a friendly smile."

Faith in Action is a nonprofit network of volunteers from the community and local faith congregations that provide assistance to the elderly and others in need.

The program, which turns 10 years old this month, was started with a $35,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Eleven congregations and 250 volunteers now make up Faith in Action, which serves hundreds of Red Wing area seniors.

"Faith in Action has had a deep affect on many families," said Lee Neste, Faith in Action's executive director.

Last year alone, Faith in Action volunteers traveled more than the circumference of the globe -- 27,000 miles -- providing transportation services.

"Instead of setting up an entire transit system, you have a network of people," said Michael Schultz, Faith in Action board member and CEO of St. Brigid's at Hi-Park. "That part is the real home run."

Faith in Action operates on United Way funding, grant money, memorials, and donations from congregations and private citizens.

The program was started a decade ago to help increase and improve senior services.

"The fact that we're still here after 10 years is a sign that the program was needed and the community believes in the idea and wants to keep it going," Neste said.

Relying on volunteers to drive thousands of miles can be difficult and sometimes puts a strain on the program, Neste said. But Faith in Action has been fortunate that people still offer their time and money despite surging gasoline prices.

Neste said the volunteers' dedication doesn't surprise him. Many say the experience is life-changing, he said.

"Over the years, what's really impressed me is that the people receiving the services are so thankful, but I get just as many thanks from the volunteers," Neste said. "You don't expect those rewards coming back."

Faith in Action's transportation services have been popular since the beginning, Neste said. But he called Faith in Action's friendly visitor program a "hidden gem."

Volunteers visit individuals once a week as part of the program, which aims to reduce isolation and loneliness.

"Faith in Action is not just about the driving," Witgert said.

"It helps you make friends for life."

Looking to the future

Neste said recruiting volunteers, along with securing funds, will continue to be the organization's biggest struggles. But he's confident the groundwork laid early will keep Faith in Action on solid ground.

"Having a simple set of standards and sticking to them has really helped," Neste said.

Neste said Faith in Action officials don't plan on adding any new programs in the near future. Instead, they will focus on improving what is already offered.

"The future is trying to do what we've always done and hopefully doing it better," he said.