When things got tight, family turned to CAER

by Nathan Warner
Contributing writer

Like so many other Americans, parents Gwen and Duane Hess of Zimmerman know about stretching every cent to make it count. When money got tight this year, they turned to CAER in Elk River to get by supporting their family of four children, Emma, Ethan, Janel and Charlie Ann.

“Gradually, we just got behind,” Gwen says, “until we couldn’t even afford to buy groceries.”

The road to this point began soon after Sept. 11, 2001, when Duane lost his job

Duane and Gwen Hess and their four children know what it’s like to have their food budget run out and feel the need to turn to the CAER food shelf.

working on refueling tankers for the airlines. It was a tough time for the family as they welcomed their third child, but Gwen says they pulled through. “Duane got a job at an automation company in Princeton,” Gwen explains, “but the company went through cuts a few years later and he lost that job just before we had our fourth child.”

Duane tried to start his own remodeling business but it soon became hard to make ends meet and last year, they turned to food stamps. Gwen says the assistance helped them get by until Duane got a new job this year, when the slight boost to the family income meant they had less access to assistance.

“We were only getting $50 a month for food,” Gwen explains, “which isn’t much for two adults and four kids, so gradually we got behind again.”

That was when they turned to CAER for assistance. CAER is an Elk River nonprofit organization that serves families in need of emergency food assistance in Elk River, Otsego, and Zimmerman.

Gwen is no stranger to food drives and charities. She says she used to head up food drives in their church for the Princeton Pantry. “Even now, we give back to CAER,” she explains, adding that they donate clothing, dishes, and toys. More recently, she says she organized their annual church garage sale to give back to CAER.

“Without CAER, I’m not sure where we’d be right now,” Gwen says, “but I know that because of them, we’re not destitute. We still have our home and have kept our cars running, but without the help we receive from CAER it would be hard to afford even second-hand items and gas.”

She says the biggest sacrifice they’ve had to make so far was with their cars. “We were in an accident last year and we couldn’t afford repairs, so we just ran that car until it died,” she said.

They can’t afford to hire any services either, so Duane repairs the cars with second-hand parts and fixes up the house when it’s needed. The Hess family still buys everything second hand and can’t afford to replace anything they don’t absolutely need. Gwen says they do a lot of shopping at garage sales and spend a lot of time looking for affordable prices.

“You can’t just go to the grocery store with a list and get everything on that list,” she adds. “You have to plan each item carefully, watch the money closely, and cut back on every corner.”

This style of living has put many of the family plans on hold, Gwen explains, and they still can’t afford the new furniture they hoped to buy, the deck they planned behind the house, or the trees they thought they’d have planted by now. “It really affects every aspect of your life,” she said. “We still have the TV we were given when we were married.”

Still, they make Christmas happen for their kids and keep them active and involved in activities. Their daughters Emma, Janel, and Charlie Ann take music lessons and dance, while 6-year old Ethan is enrolled in hockey. “We want our children to suffer as little of the consequences of our situation as possible,” Gwen explains, “so we’ve gone the extra mile to make the normal things kids do happen for them.”

Overall, Gwen says the experience has been a real eye-opener for them all. “I’ve always been on the giving side of food shelves like CAER but never on the receiving side. It makes us all the more keen to help others wherever and however we can.”