Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt served her last day as executive director of the United Way of Mower County Thursday. She will move back to her hometown of Willmar, Minn., where she has taken a job with the school district. -- Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com
Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt served her last day as executive director of the United Way of Mower County Thursday. She will move back to her hometown of Willmar, Minn., where she has taken a job with the school district. -- Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Leaving a second home

Published 10:33am Thursday, January 2, 2014

Local United Way director heading back to Willmar

United Way of Mower County Executive Director Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt moved to Austin in 2005, and quickly made it her home. That’s why a recent decision to leave was all the more difficult.

Lighthizer-Schmidt and her husband, Jeremy Schmidt, the assistant finance director for Mower County, took positions in their hometown with the Willmar Public School District. In fact, they’ll be working in the same office. But the decision wasn’t easy, Lighthizer-Schmidt said.

0102 UW graphic
Graphic by Jason Schoonover

“It’s been really great,” she said of her time in Austin. “When we made the decision to move here, we weren’t sure. We didn’t know anyone. But it didn’t take long. People were really nice, and it’s a really nice community.”

Lighthizer-Schmidt’s last day is today, and the United Way of Mower County will post the job opening soon. Hiring a replacement will be up to the United Way’s executive committee, which will accept applications through about the middle of January, and could have an offer by early February, Lighthizer-Schmidt estimates.

Local United Way employees Chris Grev and Paula Engolou will handle the day-to-day operations until the committee hires a new director. The year’s public campaign is mostly wrapped up, and the United Way’s strategic plan is laid out, which makes this time of year as good as any for a transition, Lighthizer-Schmidt said.

The local United Way has grown significantly under Lighthizer-Schmidt, who became its executive director in May 2005. The United Way had just wrapped up its record-setting 2004 campaign, which raised $871,750 following the highest flood on record in Austin.

Fast-forward eight years to 2012, and the United Way had raised more than $1 million for the third-straight year, with its record-setting 2011 campaign of $1.04 million a 16 percent increase over 2004. Ask Lighthizer-Schmidt, and she is quick to credit Austinites’ giving nature, and the United Way’s focus on transparency.

“I think there’s a real culture in this community of caring for one another, more so than other communities I’ve seen,” she said, adding that they’ve been able to fund new programs, in addition to the traditional ones. “Many United Ways haven’t had that luxury.”

Transparency has been a big driver, too.

“We really hit the ground running on trying to engage the community on our work,” she said. “They understand what we did and where their donations go.”

Austinites step up, she said, whether it’s donating food, clothing or money, or volunteering, like the Women’s Leadership Initiative.

“I’ll be sad to leave those ladies,” Lighthizer-Schmidt said. “I can’t believe the difference they have made.”

Lighthizer-Schmidt will be Communications Director for the school district in Willmar, which is coincidentally home to Jennie-O Turkey, a subsidiary of Austin-based Hormel Foods Corp. But Lighthizer-Schmidt said she now has two communities she can call her own.

“Austin wasn’t our hometown,” Lighthizer-Schmidt said. “But it sure felt like home.”

Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt is moving to Willmar with her husband, Jeremy Schmidt, their dog, Mr. Henry, and sons, Luka and Leo.
Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt is moving to Willmar with her husband, Jeremy Schmidt, their dog, Mr. Henry, and sons, Luka and Leo.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Lighthizer-Schmidt will be in charge of benefits and compensation with the school district in Willmar. However, Lighthizer-Schmidt will be the Communications Director for the district. Her husband will be working in compensation and benefits for the district. 


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