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Joanne Senander knew about hard times, and tried to make things easier for the poor

September 24, 2018

To her six kids, Joanne Senander was a strict mother who forbade from playing in the street, wearing daring clothing and saying the words “shut up.”

To nearly everyone else, she was “Grandma Jo,” an indomitable advocate for those forgotten, ignored or shunned.

“Jo was an embodiment of love in action,” said Jo Clare Hartsig, a minister affiliated with the United Church of Christ. “It was a clear message of not just Christianity but of every faith.”

Senander, who died Sept. 3 after a short battle with cancer at 86, was a special education teacher who “kicked it into gear when she retired,” said daughter Suzie White of St. Louis Park.

When getting her six children and their families together on Thanksgiving became impossible, she, her husband, Don, and the kids’ families decided to celebrate the holiday on another day. Senander started going to St. Stephen’s homeless shelter on Thanksgiving.

By 1995, she had founded the Thanksgiving Day Free Store to distribute free, often new, winter coats, hats, boots, sweatshirts, socks, underwear, backpacks and personal items to those in need.

Senander served meals to anyone, mostly people who were homeless. As she considered what happened to people after they left the holiday meal, often inadequately clothed for cold days and nights outside, the idea took off.

In recent years, 500 to 700 people received free clothing and personal items. Senander and her volunteers shopped all year for the event. They waited for Menards’ annual $1.99 sale on gloves and the 70 percent-off sales at Kohl’s to pick up items.

Senander and volunteers usually sought out sweatshirts and coats in larger sizes. “She knows the people who wear them stuff them with extra layers of newspapers to be more ‘thermally sound,’ ” one person wrote in Senander’s winning nomination for KARE-TV’s “Eleven Who KARE” award to volunteers.

She rarely talked about how she became devoted to such work. But she was likely influenced by divorce from her first husband, who left her with five kids under the age of 7. Senander later married Don, who adopted the kids, and the two added a sixth child, Kriss, in 1961.

Until she turned 80, Senander was still joining teenagers in an annual event sleeping outside in cardboard boxes to bring attention to homelessness. She proved nearly impossible to resist when she called on family, friends and acquaintances to join her causes. Behind her back, Senander became affectionately known as the “demander” after “Senander” was auto-corrected as “demander” in a text.

The name stuck, said Mary Kay Sauter, a retired United Church of Christ pastor, and one of four who eulogized Senander at her funeral. Sauter experienced that gentle pressure herself when Senander wanted to be at Minneapolis City Hall to witness the first legal gay weddings in Minnesota. “She called me up that day [July 31, 2013] and said, ‘I want to go to the service tonight at midnight. Can you drive us?’ ”

Sauter laughs now at the inconvenience of being called for a last-minute, late-night ride. “She challenged us to go, and now I’m so glad we did,” Sauter said.

Despite Senander’s stridency, she was known as someone who could forgo talk of religion or politics to keep peace and friendships, but opponents knew to expect get an earful. “She knew that inclusion was important — and so was talking about what two sides have in common,” Hartsig said.

She is survived by her husband, Don, and six children. Services have been held.

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