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Guest Commentary: Gratitude for the bright spots of 2020

By Tim Penny

President & CEO Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

With the new year just days away, I have been taking some time to reflect on this past year. While 2020 has been incredibly challenging, I have found myself focusing on the bright spots. It was a year filled with incredible stories of people doing amazing things to help those hit hardest by the pandemic. I am thankful that at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), we were able to play a role, alongside many partners and collaborators, in moving this part of the state toward a more resilient future.

It is impossible to encapsulate everything that I was grateful for in 2020, but this top ten list is a start (in no particular order):

• Early Childhood professionals. They have continued to support the young children of our region under extremely difficult conditions. We were able to provide Early Childhood trainings and technical assistance, in addition to emergency grants, to support these professionals throughout the year.

• Entrepreneurs. So many businesses have been hit hard this year. I have been energized by the innovative spirit of entrepreneurs in the region who have adapted their business models during a period of rapid changes. We partnered with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to disperse more than $10 million in Small Business Relief Grants directly to businesses in our region. We were also able to provide trainings and technical assistance to businesses.

• Our 30 Community Foundations. SMIF offered a matching grant to the community foundations under our umbrella so they could provide relief funding directly to their communities. They were able to help their local food shelves purchase more food, keep essential community organizations afloat, provide critical tools for equitable distance learning and much more.

• Local food producers. This year holiday shoppers had the opportunity to shop online for foodie gifts that were produced by 40 vendors from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. More than 400 unique items were available through the FEAST! Online Marketplace with products ranging from hazelnut oil and smoked salmon patties to maple syrup and jam.

• The addition of a new Prosperity Initiative cohort. This program offers business training and mentoring to new immigrant and minority entrepreneurs in our region. We were excited to welcome a new cohort of 13 clients this year and support the growth of their businesses during this difficult year.

• Our AmeriCorps members. AmeriCorps LEAP Initiative members serve in preschool classrooms and nonprofits focused on the social and emotional development of young children. VISTA members serve at nonprofits or local government agencies to help increase economic prosperity of diverse groups in our region. We also welcomed a VISTA member at SMIF who is focused on local foods initiatives, and a Lead for Minnesota Fellow who is focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

• Our grant recipients. In addition to the DEED Grants and Emergency Child Care Grants that we have dispersed, we also supported small towns with their COVID response efforts, provided free paint for community projects and launched both the Inclusive and Equitable Communities Grant program and the Early Care and Education Wrap Around Grant program. We also awarded a record 27,828 children’s books to 66 organizations through our Early Literacy Grant program (and many more books through other programs). It is amazing to see how passionate our grant recipients are about serving their communities.

• Our incredible donors and partners. None of the work mentioned above would be possible without them. Thanks to our 309 donors – individuals, families, cities, counties, businesses and organizations – we have raised $1.3 million to date in 2020. I am humbled by their generosity and their belief in the work we do, especially during this critical time.

• The staff at SMIF. They were able to quickly mobilize and shift operations to process and distribute hundreds of emergency grants and loans, while providing technical assistance and training to early childhood professionals and entrepreneurs in the region.

• Last, but definitely not least, southern Minnesotans. You have proven to be resilient in the face of immense challenges. As I have said previously, we are stronger together, and we will get through this together.

Here’s to a new year and a brighter future for southern Minnesota.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215.