Gerry Beckmann readily admits she “can talk forever” about PROP, the non-profit food shelf she helped found 50 years ago.
For PROP’s first 30 years, Beckmann served as its executive director, shepherding its all-volunteer efforts to help residents in need with food, money and time. The food shelf was even located in the walkout basement of her house for a time.
Beckmann’s involvement with PROP ended when she retired in August 2000. (“I had to leave completely because I knew if things changed, I would say, ‘No, no, no, this is how it should be,'” she said.) But, from a distance, she is grateful that PROP’s mission of neighbors helping neighbors continues.
“It’s just an amazing demonstration of what ordinary people can do,” Beckmann said. “And did do. And continue to do.”
PROP, also known as People Reaching Out to People, has been described by Eden Prairie Mayor Ron Case as the critical safety net for city families for 50 years.
Those efforts have changed a bit since Beckmann left. PROP has a new location (14700 Martin Drive), a paid staff working alongside volunteers, and expanded services to meet the needs of the 1,100 families it serves.
“The results of their work, generously supported by the people of this community, will shine forever in the rebuilt lives, second chances, and renewed hope that PROP has given to people in need,” Case said. “Eden Prairie would not be the city we are today were it not for the amazing 50 years of value PROP has contributed to the health of this community.”
How it all began
PROP’s origins can be traced back to a meeting 50 years ago in the living room of Beckmann’s house.
“Eden Prairie was a little village at that time,” she recalled. “It was just beginning to grow. But I saw a need for this.”
Beckmann is unsure exactly when that meeting of leaders from various community organizations in the city occurred. (The first known PROP meeting was in January 1971.)
What remains clear to Beckmann are the reasons the group met and the decision settled upon. Hatched was the idea of forming one community organization to help residents in need.
After delivering Thanksgiving food baskets to needy families through Immanuel Lutheran Church, Beckmann discovered similar baskets were given to the same families by other local charitable efforts.
At the time, she was involved in the community in several ways, including as chair of Immanuel’s evangelical committee.
“That’s when it came to me that there are people in need in Eden Prairie, and there are people in Eden Prairie who want to help their neighbors in a dignified way,” she said. “But we sure don’t need duplication of efforts.”
‘The giving spirit’
Once those in attendance decided to team up, Beckmann and the others had to figure out how the organization would provide help.
Volunteers, it was determined, would do the work as quietly as possible. The group would never let the public know who the people were being helped.
Then came the question of who would lead it. “It was like ‘I guess it will be you, Gerry,'” she remembers. “So it was me.”
The meeting’s location (Beckmann still lives in the same Eden Prairie house) was intentionally not a church. Though Beckmann considered her work at PROP as part of her Christian mission, she never stated that while she was director.
“One reason we never went to a church to run PROP is that I didn’t want it to be known as a Christian organization,” she said. “Even in those days, we had people of all faiths.”
“That’s what we were, just ordinary people reaching out to other ordinary people. That’s how we ran it.”Gerry Beckmann
Beckmann didn’t come up with the original name People Reaching Out to Other People, but she knew it was perfect when she heard it. (The “Other” in the title was dropped along the way.)
She credits Dorothy Bennett, whose husband Wayne was Edina’s police chief at the time, for the name. The Bennetts lived in Eden Prairie and attended Immanuel Lutheran Church.
“That’s what we were, just ordinary people reaching out to other ordinary people,” she said. “That’s how we ran it. The Lord and I ran it for my 30 years, and it was always total volunteer. We never took any money from the federal government. We rejoiced in the interest and the giving spirit of the people in Eden Prairie.”
Looking back, Pastor Rod Anderson characterized PROP’s role in the community for its first 30 years as a volunteer emergency service organization.
The former senior pastor at St. Andrew Lutheran Church played an integral part in PROP during those years. He was president of the PROP board for the first 24 years.
Anderson said PROP also was a seedbed for birthing and establishing many other much-needed Eden Prairie services. That included Meals on Wheels, a blood bank, school supplies, and rides to doctor appointments.
All those focused on giving a “hand up rather than a handout,” he said.
“That says so much about the powerful spirit of volunteerism in the hearts of Eden Prairie residents and the desire to help others better themselves with dignity and self-esteem,” Anderson said.
If PROP saw a need, as long as it was within its mission statement and ability, then it would be provided, Beckman said. It also gave people in the community an avenue to help others.
That benevolence still echoes today.
“I truly believe that because of PROP and all the programs and all the different ways that people could become involved that this community is still such a caring community,” Beckmann said. “Of course, tons of people have moved in and out since those days, but I believe it’s in the DNA of Eden Prairie people to support PROP.”
A constant among so much change
Clare Kooiman has volunteered at PROP for much of its existence. The longtime Eden Prairie resident was recruited by Beckmann in 1974 or so and continues to help today.
Kooiman has filled food orders, served many years on the PROP board, and handled the holiday basket program. When PROP was incorporated, Kooiman, along with Beckman and Anderson, were listed as the incorporators.
“But now with COVID, the only thing I’ve done for the last year is the monthly statistics report that’s turned into the Second Harvest (Heartland food bank),” she said.
Kooiman said PROP has remained a constant in a community that has seen much change over the years.
To prove her point, Kooiman tells of recently finding the poster board she made for Beckmann’s retirement gathering in 2000.
Etched on it, among other things, is PROP’s philosophy.
Kooiman reads it over the phone: “PROP believes that any person in the Eden Prairie area is potentially eligible to be a recipient of PROP’s services. At the same time, any person in the Eden Prairie area is a potential donor of some beneficial service or commodity. PROP provides the means by which the donor and the recipient are served.”
She pauses for a second.
“That’s pretty much the same as we do today, isn’t it?” Kooiman said. “That fundamental is still what PROP is about. It makes me feel good how PROP has grown and is still able to preserve the original idea of why it was formed in the first place.”
For more on PROP's 50th anniversary, click here.