Guest column: Open grants support literacy, beautification

Published 8:45 pm Friday, February 23, 2024

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Guest column by Tim Penny

Since 1986, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation has invested $56.9 million in grants in our 20-county region. While these grants support a wide range of projects — from providing books to young children to supporting small town growth — they each have had a transformative and long-term impact on the future of southern Minnesota. Two grant opportunities are open now.

Tim Penny

We are currently accepting applications for our Early Literacy Grant program. More than 100,000 children have been impacted by this grant, which aims to enhance school readiness for children from birth to age 8 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 5. Contact Heidi Coulter at with questions.

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I always look forward to the Paint the Town Grant cycle, which offers free paint for various community beautification projects. In Peterson, the public library now has a mural on the side of the building that depicts a gnome mailing a letter, adding to a community-wide gnome theme that draws tourism to the area. In Elmore, a mural was created by keeping most of the design low to the ground. This enabled people to sit down while painting, making an inclusive process for those unable to climb ladders. By making this grant specific to towns under 10,000, SMIF can help small communities access resources that are sometimes limited.

In the past, the Paint the Town Grant has been made available for murals, historic structures and welcome signs. I am excited for a new component that communities can apply for this year: the ability to use paint for public art and creative placemaking projects. I look forward to seeing what projects communities use paint for that contribute to the vibrancy of their town. Applications for this program are due by March 28. Contact Alissa Oeltjenbruns at with questions.

Several more grants will open up later this year. During the summer, we will open up the Small Town Grant program, which supports communities with populations of 10,000 or less with projects that impact the culture, education, economy and social aspects of the town. In the fall, the Early Care and Education Grants will open, which support important services for children birth to age 5. Around the same time, the Inclusive and Equitable Communities Grant will open, which supports equitable entrepreneurship. To learn more about these grants, visit

Over the past 38 years, SMIF’s grants have been able to make significant, and sometimes even visible, progress in southern Minnesota, contributing to early learning, economic development and community vitality. I can’t wait to see how organizations use this year’s grants to make our region an even better place to call home.

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.