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Guest Column: Connections for a stronger southern Minnesota

Guest Column by Tim Penny


Autumn, with its changing colors and temperatures that encourage us to move indoors, is a natural time to slow down and contemplate life. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), we use this time each year to reflect on the partnerships that have resulted in a stronger southern Minnesota. We do this by celebrating a handful of these partnerships in our annual Impact Report.

This year we highlighted three stories about incredible things that our partners are doing — building community vitality in St. Charles, creating a system for long-term economic growth in Blue Earth and improving the lives of our youngest generation in New Ulm. As we delved deeper into each story, it became clear that our relationships with these people and communities did not just start and stop with one program or grant. These stories revealed a much deeper history of SMIF’s reach through varying initiatives over time, creating a web of resources and connections that built upon each other to create a strong network of support.

Tim Penny

The first story profiles St. Charles where a group of community members were looking for ways to implement some ideas they had for the town’s growth. They connected with SMIF because of our history of supporting the town through early childhood and community vitality initiatives. After some conversations, they decided to form a community foundation to help capture and retain philanthropic wealth to support local initiatives. The St. Charles Area Community Foundation (SCACF) was officially established in 2015 and is one of 30 community foundations that SMIF supports as part of its Affiliate Fund program. SCACF has supported a wide array of projects, including the remodeling of a ball field, a backpack food program and events that contribute to community vitality. They also recently received two SMIF Community Foundation Relief Grants to aid in their local pandemic response efforts, and a SMIF Paint the Town Grant to paint a welcoming mural near the town’s entrance.

In New Ulm, educators and child care providers have taken advantage of SMIF’s Early Childhood Trainings. A preschool teacher attended one of those trainings called Conscious Discipline, which helps children develop long-term behavioral skills to deal with conflict, and it changed her entire outlook on educating. A child care business owner participated in another of SMIF’s training sessions that helped reorient her business plan so that it supports her professional and personal goals. When the school district received an Early Childhood Grant from SMIF, they were able to implement their own trainings for child care providers in Brown County. These opportunities keep their skills sharp and allow them to better serve the children they are committed to working with every day.

The final story features a leadership team in Blue Earth that has participated in SMIF’s Rural Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) program for three years. REV helps small towns develop new approaches for long-term economic growth. After conducting a survey at the high school, they discovered that most students did not think there were many job opportunities in town. They decided to host a series of events to connect students with local employers. After taking advantage of a SMIF Small Town Grant, they have been able to expand their reach to more than 150 students.

I invite you to read the stories from our 2020 Impact Report by visiting smifoundation.org/impactreport. These are just three of the many stories we could share, but they serve as examples of how SMIF lives its motto of “Collaborating for Regional Vitality.” It is through partnerships like the ones highlighted in this report that we can make an impact on southern Minnesota’s future.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org 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.