Go-between negotiates help for hard times’ casualties


By Dwight Hobbes

Contributing Writer


It gives something to some people to give something to people. Grace Woolridge is such a person, which is why she works at St. Paul-based Merrick Community Services (MCS).

MCS improves the lives of East St. Paul residents, empowering individuals, strengthening families, and helping to wean people off dependency on the system by promoting self-sufficiency. It works in partnership with other agencies, foundations, businesses, schools, churches and service organizations. It operates two 25,000-square-foot community centers, two food shelves, plus job bank postings and job fair information.

All of which made Merrick an attractive employer to Grace Woolridge. “People wouldn’t believe it, but a lot of programs like this weren’t around when I graduated [from the University of Louisville] in 1982. There weren’t a lot of programs for people trying to do better, get off welfare. Not to make it a lifelong resource.

“I love feeling like I’m helping people. It’s something I love doing. To make a difference. I find that rewarding.”

Her title is Family Assessment Worker, but since she stepped on board in 2008 her duties have shifted. Originally Woolridge often worked with Ramsey County on behalf of young mothers.

“[They] were,” she recalls, “having educational problems with their children. Not at the level of some of the horrible abuse cases, but educational neglect. Children missing a lot of days out of school. Or they don’t have their shots that they need to be in school — required immunizations.

“I had couple of clients where drug use was involved, either the mother or the baby. I’d work with them for six to eight weeks. Ramsey County would give a family plan and I would help the client [comply].”

Since Ramsey County began handling things differently, doing more of the family casework, Woolridge has primarily switched to working with individual clients. She provides intake for those seeking help with such problems as rent, energy, car repairs in order to get back and forth to a job, and assorted other everyday life concerns that, at the turn of a financial mishap, become emergencies. Especially in these times of tight money.

Belts are, in fact, being tightened on both the receiving and giving end. Merrick Community Services, like everyone else, is feeling the economic crunch. “Our agency as well as a lot of other agencies don’t have [limitless] financial resources,” Woolrich points out. “So, when I take an application, I initially submit it to St. Paul Foundation to see if the client would qualify, meet stipulations for [their] assistance.

“Along with other agencies, that is the go-to agency for [Merrick Community Services]. I’m kind of the go-between, because St. Paul Foundation does not deal directly with clients. When I submit an application, they will approve it, not approve it, or may need additional information.  Some type of verification, paycheck stub, statement to someone, maybe a landlord.”

When need be, she fills in at the switchboard, but it certainly isn’t because Woolridge has much idle time on her hands. The deteriorating economy has seen to that.

“We see a steady increase for help, a lot of people who’ve never asked for help before.  People that’ve worked 10, 15 years, and now they’re out of a job. And they’re like, ‘What do I do? Where do I go? Who do I ask for help?’”

A little less than five years ago, Grace Woolridge asked herself those questions. She was in her native Louisville, Kentucky wondering what to do about employment. Grace had been juggling three part-time jobs when she contacted her daughter, who summoned her to the Twin Cities.

“She said, ‘If you came here, you can find a job where you won’t be working so many different schedules.’ That’s what I did. I came in April and was working full time in June.”

She drew on skills acquired in Louisville, where she held number of jobs including social service work with families, a foster network, and public school education as well as teaching at the university.

“For me,” she says, “the irony of it, the best training I’ve had is my own life experience. Because I was a single mom with three kids when I graduated college. So, I can relate to the struggles of [my] clients. I identify.”

Grace’s love of helping others is tempting her to express itself a bit differently by way of a prospective return to teaching. She is, at any rate, looking into it, investigating the prospect of securing a Minnesota license. “I’ve taught basic English, grammar. Also ESL [English as a Second Language].”

For the meanwhile, though, Grace Woolridge contents herself with helping people who’ve fallen on hard times and making a real difference at Merrick Community Services.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.