Guest Column: Make a difference in your own backyard

Published 7:49 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Guest Column by Tim Penny

Tim Penny


When asked what I love about southern Minnesota, one thing that always rises to the top is the drive that people have to help their neighbors. This was especially evident during the recent blizzard. Volunteers helped dig out vehicles, rescue stranded travelers and open their doors to provide shelter. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, we work to help our neighbors in many ways, including by placing people in service roles across our 20-county region through the national AmeriCorps program.

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More than 75,000 Americans across the country serve in AmeriCorps each year to meet critical needs in communities. Established in 1993, AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs, made up of three primary programs that each take a different approach to improving lives and fostering civic engagement. Members commit their time to address critical community needs like increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty, sustaining national parks and preparing for disasters.

Since 2005, SMIF has been the host organization for a program that focuses on early childhood development called AmeriCorps LEAP (Learning Early Achieves Potential) Initiative. We place up to 20 members in early childhood settings across our region. Members work one-on-one and in small groups with young children, ages 3 through 5, building social and emotional proficiencies to prepare for kindergarten success.

For some of our members, this is a wonderful opportunity to build skills for future careers, and for others, it is the next step of exploration after retirement. One of our current members, Peggy Decker, is a retired pediatrician. She is serving part time in the Cannon Falls preschool, working with children on managing emotions and practicing strategies to calm their body and mind so they can develop problem-solving skills. Applying her experience as a pediatrician to a preschool setting has allowed her to address inequalities in academic achievement through a new lens of social emotional learning. One of the many benefits of serving in AmeriCorps is that upon completion, members receive an award that can be utilized for tuition or to pay off student loans. Members like Peggy who are 55 or older can gift their award to a child or grandchild.

This year we will also be placing up to four members through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Members will serve at nonprofit organizations to build the capacity of programs and services targeted toward diverse populations who are experiencing economic hardship. The focus of VISTA members is to enable organizations to grow minority entrepreneurship.

AmeriCorps gives people an opportunity to make a difference in their own backyard while developing critical life skills. As we experienced during the blizzard, we are all invested in helping our neighbors and making this region a place we are proud to call home.

We are currently accepting full-time and half-time applications for the 2019-20 AmeriCorps LEAP Initiative service term. We will be announcing host sites seeking applications for AmeriCorps VISTA service in the next few weeks. For more information about our AmeriCorps programs or to apply, contact Barbara Gunderson, AmeriCorps director, at or 507-214-7010.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.