Beth Holger thought she was joining a Zoom call to update the Vikings on the goings-on of The Link, where she serves as Chief Executive Officer.
What she got was a whole lot more.
After a few moments of chatting with Vikings Community Relations Manager Logan Johnson, Holger was surprised to see a special guest "enter" the call: Vikings Ring of Honor member Jim Marshall.
Marshall, along with fellow Vikings Legend Oscar Reed, founded The Link in 1991 to support youth in North Minneapolis who were being victimized by crime, getting involved in crime and who were struggling with poverty and homelessness.
Marshall and his wife, Susan Landwehr, greeted Holger like old friends.
"Hello, Bethy," Marshall said. "You guys are working really hard over there."
"We're trying," Holger responded. "We're trying to keep up your legacy."
Marshall, who started 270 consecutive games for the Vikings from 1961-79, expressed gratitude to Holger and The Link staff for making such a tremendous impact for young people during an especially trying year.
He then made the highlight play of the day, so to speak.
"The [Vikings player-led] Social Justice Committee voted to give The Link $20,000," Marshall told Holger. "And that's for you to use for what you need it for. I'm really proud to deliver this news.
"The Wilfs have stepped up," Marshall added. "Everybody in the organization has been proud to support [The Link]. It's come a long way since Oscar and I started it."
Holger couldn't hide an emotional reaction to the surprise announcement.
"You crying?" Marshall asked, his tender smile contrasting the toughness of his playing days.
"I'm trying not to," Holger laughed. "But this is so incredible. And it means a lot that Logan snuck you into this meeting. Everybody knows The Link thinks the world of you and Oscar, what you did to start The Link and how much you do to support us.
"I'm really stunned. This is really incredible," Holger re-emphasized. "It's very rare [to receive a gift like this]. Usually you have to apply for funding, and it's incredibly rare that you find out this way. It's just so nice. Oh my gosh. I can't believe it."
Interjected Marshall: "I told you – we've got your back."
Holger explained that Marshall and Reed continue to keep boots on the ground in North Minneapolis to support The Link and the young people it serves.
When Marshall and Reed were approached by Holger about receiving a Founders award, the former teammates respectfully declined the recognition, requesting instead for an award to be given to youth and adult staff at The Link who go above and beyond in the community. The Marshalls endowed the award at $500 to be given annually.
Holger also shared that Jim and Susan hand-delivered donations to The Link during the peaceful protests and riots that were triggered by the death of George Floyd while in police custody on Memorial Day.
"Jim and Oscar have been incredible mentors and role models of what good leadership looks like in the community," Holger said. "They come to Link events for our staff to speak and give inspiration to our entire staff and youth … They never try to step in or micromanage, but they're our biggest cheerleaders. They're so supportive, inspiring and motivating to us."
Fortunately, The Link has been faring well during the coronavirus pandemic, having had no positive COVID-19 cases among youth or staff since August. The program is still seeing an increased need among youth and families, however, and is working hard to meet that need.
The Link recently opened the Dignity House emergency shelter for youth ages 10-17, which provides additional beds for runaway and homeless youth in the Twin Cities. Additionally, it received "motel vouchers" from the State of Minnesota to help provide those who are 18 and older with shelter during this time.
The Link community has been significantly impacted by recent violence in Minneapolis. In addition to supporting young people who have lost friends and loved ones to gun violence, the program also is mourning the loss of young people who were part of The Link's juvenile justice program.
Holger explained that The Link recently added a crisis therapist who works with the organization's staff and young people. The nonprofit also applied for and received a $20,000 grant from The Minneapolis Foundation for its youth-led racial and social justice work.
"We've always been doing a lot on that front, but now we'll be able to do more," Holger said.
Holger assured that the Vikings generous donation will also go a long way in making a difference for the next generation.
"There's just so much need, so much crisis and so many emergencies. I can say, absolutely, we'll put it to incredible use," Holger said. "I think the biggest place we can use it now is within the new emergency shelter program and adding some more hotel vouchers, because we've got to get these youth off the streets and into safe places right now."
Marshall thanked Holger and her staff for being so hands-on with the youth they support on a daily basis.
"That's the way we started [The Link]," Marshall said. "We've got to get these kids off the street – get them in school. Get them behind a book instead of a gun."
"I get the honor – along with the other staff at The Link – of carrying on what you and Oscar started," she said. "You started as feisty, community-centered, youth-loving people who did what you needed to do to get things done and to help the community and the young people. We carry that out here in North Minneapolis and Downtown, and we're just trying to expand on what you started."
The Vikings $20,000 donation comes as a part of the $1 million fund to be distributed to nonprofits around Minnesota in support of social justice initiatives.
If you would like to learn more about The Link or consider volunteering or donating, click here.