First Ladies of the Hillside: A better future for all families

The First Ladies of the Hillside are forging a new path for themselves. Their friendships formed and grew on Zoom during the pandemic. And now, they are looking beyond their group, and how to help all families in the Hillside.

They are also helping UMD students understand more about the ways of the world. Grace McLarnan is one of those students. She is now a fixture in the First Ladies. She met them through a brain development class lead by Molly Harney.

"They’ve had their struggles, of course. But they embody a saying a teacher in high school told me. Lift as you rise. They are growing personally, and they are trying to give other people a hand up as well," Grace told us. "They are so positive, trying to make things better for their kids."

Another student is Erika Doetkott, who told us that the ladies are teaching her about trust, in others and in herself. "They are truly some of the strongest women I know. They’ve taught me confidence, and how to be confident in myself," Erika shared.

Those relationships and insight will help these young women in their futures, and are an education that money can’t buy. It’s music to the leaders at the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation.

"That’s what we’re about. Upstream impact, changing direction, changing outcomes, and providing opportunity and hope," Shaun Floerke told us. He’s the new executive director at the DSACF.

Money from the foundation helped pay for Wi-Fi at the Steve O’Neil apartments, which connected the women during the pandemic.

"You take away some barriers, and open a few doors, and people thrive," Floerke said.

And they grow. Rachel Ross, one of the First Ladies, said, "It’s a lot harder to hold on to the hate, than it is to be happy. I’ve forgiven a lot of people in my life."

She’s also growing vegetables in the garden beds at Steve O’Neil. "It takes me home, a little bit," she said.

Nuturing is in their nature. In fact, they plan on taking their imperfections and turn them into a focused future. "Even though we have checkered pasts, you still matter. You’re still people," Amber Pelfrey said, another First Lady.

She is pursuing a degree in criminal justice. "I want to work with high-risk youth, and try to stop them from going down the wrong path," she added.

First Lady Rhoda Warbok wants to provide solace to those suffering with substance abuse. "I want to be a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. I’d love to work with CAIR and with Fond du Lac," she said.

And Heather Zellner, another First Lady, is on a journey of self-discovery. "I am learning more about my disabilities, to help other moms out there. And let them know they can do it, with just a little bit of help."

They all want to create a space for other mothers to come and learn, laugh, and love.

"We have big dreams to build a community center, to help the children in the community, the mothers," shared another First Lady, whose identity we are protecting.

They’re meeting on Wednesdays at the Damiano Center with other community leaders and organizers. Mayor Larson stopped by this Wednesday, and said she was there to listen. "I’m here to find out how the city can show up for you in a way that’s meaningful," she told them.

During the hour or so meeting, the ladies shared their efforts so far, with the needle recovery, coffee, and their art. All just a few steps from home, for most of them.

Where each day, they give it their best. "We are going to make a difference in the Hillside," Rachel said.

Even when it’s hard. "I’ll take a bad day sober over a good day high anytime," Rhoda added.

Because they know, the First Ladies, have their backs. "We’re very much a family. It’s kind of like, building your own family. I love these women."

Invisible No More.