Guest column: Grants support early literacy, beautification

Published 8:45 pm Friday, February 24, 2023

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Guest column by Tim Penny

This year at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, we will reach a milestone of investing more than $50 million in our communities through grantmaking since our start in 1986. While these grants support a wide range of projects — from providing books to young children to supporting small town growth — they each have had transformative and long-term impact on the future of southern Minnesota. I’m excited to share about two opportunities that are open this spring, as well as highlight some impacts of recent projects that SMIF has funded.

Tim Penny

We are currently accepting applications for our Early Literacy Grant program. Nearly 100,000 children have been impacted by this grant which aims to enhance school readiness for children from birth to age eight by providing books to families. Schools, libraries and other early childhood-focused organizations have received this grant in the past which has been essential for building children’s confidence as readers throughout the region. The program receives books through partnerships with publishing companies, Capstone and ABDO, which helps ensure a diverse selection of books are available for families to read to their children. Applications are due March 15. Contact Heidi Coulter at with questions.

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I always look forward to the Paint the Town Grant cycle which will open in early March. As I drive around the region I can see firsthand the impact that this grant has had on our communities. Last summer I was fortunate to attend the unveiling of a new mural in Spring Valley that depicts the trail system and trout fishing — both of which bring tourism to the area. Giants of the Earth Heritage Center in Spring Grove was able to use the grant to update the interior of their building, making it fresh and more welcoming for visitors. By making this grant specific to towns under 10,000, SMIF can help small communities access resources that are sometimes limited.

This program, which partners with Ace Hardware stores and Arrow Hardware & Paint stores, will open in early March with an application deadline of April 17. Contact Jennifer Heien with questions.

SMIF recently concluded its Inclusive and Equitable Communities Grant cycle which is focused on creating more welcoming communities. I look forward to seeing how these projects unfold — from an initiative to encourage more Somali youth in Faribault to experience the outdoors, to a project in Blue Earth that will foster a sense of belonging in the schools. These grants are an exciting way to support organizations as they work toward more equitable communities.

Finally, we also recently awarded the Early Care and Education Grant recipients, which supports services for children birth to age 5. The Chatfield Public Schools will use the funding to strengthen and support social emotional learning in early childhood classrooms, child care settings and homes in the area. In the New Ulm Schools they will use their award to focus on kindergarten readiness for children and their families. We have heard from many early childhood professionals that these grants make a huge difference in the services they are able to provide to children and families in the region.

Over the past 37 years, SMIF’s grants have been able to move the needle on school readiness, economic development and community vitality. To see the full range of grants that SMIF offers throughout the year, visit

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.