Minn. mortgage relief program crosses borders

A Minnesota-based program devoted to assisting families with sick and injured children is opening up to North Dakota residents. Spare Key, a non-profit organization started in 1997, helps families who are dealing with extensive hospital treatment for their children to pay their mortgage. Originally exclusive to Minnesota families, in December the group’s board of directors voted to extend its reach to neighboring Wisconsin, South Dakota and North Dakota.

The program was started by Patsy and Robb Keech, a couple whose infant son Derian needed 11 major surgeries in just his first two years of life.

“The choice to go to work to avoid losing their home or leaving their critically ill son was tormenting,” the program website explains. In his memory, the couple started Spare Key to help other families in similarly dire straits.

Conditions are simple enough. Applicants with a legal dependent aged 18 or younger are eligible if the child has spent 14 out of the past 90 days in hospital care, or 10 in-patient with at least 11 days of full-time, at-home nursing. The parent/guardian must be the deed or mortgage holder, and be able to demonstrate an exhaustion of paid leave or significant reduction in income due to the child’s illness and treatment.

If accepted, Spare Key will pay up to $1,200 in mortgage costs, with a limitation of once per year. So far the program has made mortgage payments to over 1,650 Minnesota families in more than 340 communities. The stated goal of the program is “to ensure that parents are able to remain key members of the child’s care and recovery team in the hospital, without having to worry if they have to go back to work to pay their mortgage.”

Unlike a number of similar assistance programs, Spare Key has no income limitations. “Many families do not qualify for help anywhere else,” explained program outreach director Nikki Lignell. Twice a beneficiary of the program herself, Lignell’s daughter Riley faced an extended and difficult struggle with Aicardi Syndrome, a rare chromosomal disorder.

“It’s the toughest time of your life,” she said, recounting the ordeal. After her daughter at last succumbed to the condition in March 2011, Lignell decided she would give back to the organization which had helped them. At first volunteering, she now works for the program full-time.

“I’m in the right place. I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” Lignell said.

“Knowing that there was support from people they didn’t know is huge in giving people hope,” she said of the program. “Seeing it from the other side, it is very easy to apply,” a process she explained can sometimes seem nearly impossible when confronting family tragedy.

Executive director Erich Mische described the expansion as a “proximity and geography” decision. “In communities along the borders, you had Minnesota families crossing over to North Dakota hospitals. The vast majority of our referrals come from social workers,” who soon started referring North Dakota families to the program as well.

The program is largely volunteer-based, and the nature of its work does not require branch offices. “I have a very large staff of three people,” Mische joked. “We’re low-infrastructure. All we need are families, some ability to spread the word, and referrals from social workers.”

Last year the program helped out 209 families; this year it intends to assist 600. For those interested in helping out, wanting more information, or in need of applying, visit the Spare Key site at (www.sparekey.org).