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Getting Lake County to work

Michelle Pederson is working at the Two Harbors AEOA office two days a week, helping secure work-related transportation for low-income residents. Submitted photo.

It’s been a record-breaking year in terms of cold and snow, leaving many auto owners frustrated with shoveling out vehicles and jump-starting dead batteries. It’s even harder, though, for those who don’t own cars and need to get to work.

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A Two Harbors man who rides his bicycle to work during the summer was faced with a choice this winter – use his limited income to ride the bus to work or bike miles on icy, snow-covered roads in sub-zero temperatures.

He opted for the bus, purchasing tickets from Arrowhead Transit, but the man, living on minimum wage, was feeling the pinch. He had less money for groceries, fewer dollars for rent and no wiggle room in his budget.

“He was using his income and struggling along, using the bus to get to work,” said Michelle Pederson, a transportation advocate with Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency.

When she heard the man was struggling, she invited him in and offered assistance. AEOA now covers his bus tickets until he’s able to ride his bike to work again.

“That makes you feel really good … when you can help somebody that you know has been struggling and doing their best with the resources they have,” Pederson said.

Pederson recently began working in Two Harbors as a transportation advocate for county residents. She connects those in need with the Rural Rides program, which helps low-income residents get to work.

“Sometimes people go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you did that.’ I get that a lot,” she said.

Arrowhead Transit operates a Dial-A-Ride service within the Two Harbors city limits. Twice monthly, the buses go on longer routes, from Brimson to Two Harbors or Two Harbors to Duluth, for example. That’s the first option for those facing challenges getting to work.

Since many residents live outside of city limits, AEOA has come up with other creative solutions, too. They have volunteer drivers who provide transportation for working adults. They also facilitate connections between co-workers through their Work Buddy Rideshare Program. Both the volunteer drivers and work buddies are reimbursed for mileage.

“I have a pool of resources – we call it our tool box,” Pederson said. “We assist (people) and offer those ideas and options to them.”

The only requirement is that the participant is living at or below 150 percent of the poverty level – that’s a $17,500 annual salary for a single person. The program provides only job-related travel, but that can include anything from GED classes to job interviews.

Pederson said the job is perfect for her. She’s worked as a deputy sheriff, a drug court and child protection social worker, a transit dispatcher and she’s managed a volunteer driving program.

“This job basically brings together all of the jobs I loved into one nice little package,” she said.

Her passion is evident when she recounts the people she’s helped. There’s the single mother of three in Carlton County who finished her nursing degree but is stuck at a low-paying job until she can take her certification tests this spring. Pederson helped stretch her family budget with transportation assistance. There’s the woman in Lake County who lost her job after a serious illness and finally found a new one, but was having a hard time getting there. Pederson helped relieve that burden.

The biggest goal is informing more people about all of their services. Pederson is also happy to refer people if they are struggling with other economic issues, like paying electricity bills or homelessness.

“Forming partnerships and getting the word out there allows us to let everybody know, ‘Here we are. Here’s what we do,’” she said.

Pederson is at the AEOA office in Two Harbors on Mondays and Thursdays at 2124 10th St. She can be reached by phone at (218) 730-7717.

The program is also in need of more volunteer drivers. Those interested can contact Martin Lepak at (218) 410-9755.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
(218) 834-2141