Freeborn County is 1 of 12 awarded national grant

Published 2:02 pm Saturday, March 11, 2017

Freeborn County officials are working with other local government entities to address poverty after the county was named as one of 12 recipients for a national program.

Freeborn County was selected as a participant in the Rural Impact County Challenge grant in September.

Representatives from Freeborn County, the city of Albert Lea, Semcac, Salvation Army and United Way of Freeborn County will have monthly meetings through the end of the year to address the issue.

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“It isn’t just the Freeborn County government,” said Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever. “We’ve expanded beyond the walls of Freeborn County into the community.”

The challenge looks to reduce the percentage of rural children and families living in poverty and includes a call to convene or draw on a diverse team of leaders and decision makers. The program — through the National Association of Counties — suggests counties develop a plan with measurable outcomes that improves access to early childhood education, nutrition, workforce development, and health and human services.

The program aims to implement research-based approaches that advance the plan and create a process to track progress.

The grant allows for a community coach to help the county in the process. Community coach Jan O’Neill, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is helping Freeborn County organize and develop goals and outcomes in relation to the program.

“Through our selection to the program, we are able to access expertise and coaching we probably otherwise would not be able to access,” Kluever said.

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution in July to submit an application for the program.

Officials organized community leaders in January and February. The community group includes United Way Executive Director Ann Austin, Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams and Assistant City Manager Jerry Gabrielatos, Albert Lea Area Schools Superintendent Mike Funk and director of secondary programs Kathy Niebuhr, Linda Lares of Semcac, Gloria Olson of Workforce Development Inc., and Freeborn County employees Brian Buhmann and Alice Englin.

“The overarching theme is all related to poverty in Freeborn County,” Kluever said. “Talking about it, trying to educate people about the problems, the facts of it in Freeborn County. And also discussing what can we do, what kind of initiatives can we put in place.”

Fourth District Freeborn County Commissioner Chris Shoff said the program means the county is looking at addressing poverty.

“This gives us a start,” he said.

“You’ve brought people throughout the community, and hearing the voices throughout the community driving them towards the goal is beneficial.”

According to the state of Minnesota, about 53 percent of kindergarten through seventh-grade students in the Albert Lea school district are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Nearly 1,300 students in Freeborn County were in poverty in 2015. About 72 percent of children 5 years old or under are eligible for Medicaid, and about 47 percent of 6- to 18-year-olds are eligible for Medicaid.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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