Guest Column: Impactful stories of the foundation in 2019

Published 5:46 pm Friday, December 20, 2019

Guest Column, by Tim Penny

With 2020 just days away, I am reflecting on Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s many accomplishments in the past year alongside our regional partners and collaborators. It was a year filled with incredible stories of people doing amazing things for this region. I am thankful SMIF was able to play a role in moving this part of the state toward an exciting future.

Tim Penny

It is impossible to include all the impactful stories of 2019, but this list is a start:

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Rochester-based Sonex Health, a company that received one of our equity investments, continues to rapidly grow, benefiting patients dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome. Doctors Darryl Barnes and Jay Smith developed a minimally invasive surgical tool that is changing not only the amount of time in the doctor’s office, but also the recovery time.

The city of St. James has experienced growing pains and, at times, divisiveness. A town that has Scandinavian and German origins is now home to large populations of Latinos. Two years ago, Marta Zelaya, originally from El Salvador, along with other community leaders helped create the Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas organization, through a grant from SMIF’s Small Town Grants program. Now this organization is changing the dynamic in this small town with activities such as a popular townwide fiesta and community meals that bring people together and create a welcoming environment.

The child care shortage continues to be an issue throughout Minnesota. In response, SMIF established a Communities Addressing the Child Care Shortage program. This program helps communities develop individualized plans to address the shortage in a way that works for them. For example, the city of Wells has created two initiatives through this program: a forgivable loan program and a space that family child care providers can rent to run their child care business. Tiffany Schrader, who works for the city, says they are committed to creating more child care slots in Wells. 

When Efraim Cadriel realized his work as a nuclear medicine technologist was triggering his trauma from his years as a combat medic and X-ray technologist, he decided to retire and become a mushroom farmer instead. Efraim and his wife, Jessica, moved to Kasota and co-founded EJ Mushrooms. Through a loan from SMIF’s Grow A Farmer Fund, they converted their garage into a year-round mushroom farm. This unique career choice has given Efraim hope, and one day he would like to share that by employing other veterans. EJ Mushrooms is another addition to a strong and growing local food economy in our region.

The community leaders of Houston have a lot of passion for their town. Nestled in the beautiful Root River Valley in the southeastern corner of our state, this active community is home to just under 1,000 people. This year, they began the Houston Area Community Foundation (HACF), an affiliate fund of SMIF. Mimi Carlson, former SMIF board of trustees member and current HACF president, says this decision is a no brainer for the community. By building an endowment fund, HACF will be able to adapt to the needs of the community and support the Houston area for years to come.

All these amazing things that have been accomplished in 2019 would not be possible without the support of SMIF’s donors. For every $1 raised in local contributions, SMIF invests $10 back into southern Minnesota. In the last year alone, we invested over $5.4 million through grants, loans and program support. Local donations to SMIF help us support entrepreneurs, young children and our communities today and for years to come. Here’s to a new year and a bright future for southern Minnesota. To find details about these stories or to support our work go to

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. He represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.