Guest Commentary: Making a difference in southern Minnesota

Published 6:30 am Saturday, March 27, 2021

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By Tim Penny

Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation President/CEO

This past year has shown all of us what it means to serve others. Southern Minnesotans have stepped up to stock food shelves, provide support for children during distance learning and find creative ways to support businesses and nonprofits that are struggling. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) we work to help our neighbors in many ways, including by placing people in service roles across our 20-county region through the national AmeriCorps program.

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As a congressman, I voted to support the creation of AmeriCorps 26 years ago. I have been pleased to see how central this program has become to our culture of service in this country. AmeriCorps members commit their time in key areas of education, economic opportunity, disaster response, healthy futures, environmental stewardship and veteran support. More than 270,000 Americans across the country serve through AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps Seniors each year to meet critical needs in communities – this has recently been expanded because of the needs that have arisen during the pandemic. Additionally, AmeriCorps is proud to boast more than one million alumni. SMIF has placed more than 600 AmeriCorps members throughout southern Minnesota over the past 26 years.

SMIF is the host organization for a program that focuses on early childhood development called AmeriCorps LEAP (Learning Early Achieves Potential) Initiative. We place up to 20 members in early childhood settings across our region. Members work one-on-one and in small groups with young children, ages three to five, building social and emotional proficiencies to prepare for kindergarten success.

SMIF is also the host for the AmeriCorps VISTA program which helps build capacity for organizations dedicated to providing economic opportunities to citizens in low-income or poverty circumstances. This year SMIF placed three VISTAs across the region and is hosting an additional two VISTA members in partnership with Minnesota Farmers Market Association, Renewing the Countryside and Sustainable Farming Association. These two VISTAs are working on a Local Food Producer Sustainability Project. James Harren will be developing a needs-based assessment for local food producers to identify where they need support, while Maeve Mallozzi-Kelly will be doing the same thing for farmers and market managers. We are also pleased to be hosting two additional AmeriCorps members: Maddy Fisher is advancing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the region through Lead for Minnesota, and Aliyah Grote-Hirsch is supporting SMIF with recruitment and marketing for the AmeriCorps LEAP program.

One of the things that I love about AmeriCorps is that it embraces members from all stages of life. One of our current LEAP members, Adriana Bermudez, is serving for a second year in her hometown of Northfield and is simultaneously earning her associate’s degree. Her experience in the program has influenced her to pursue a career as an early childhood teacher. Another member, Maurya Torgerson, used to own a cosmetology business before she became a parent. Her time in AmeriCorps has been a meaningful stepping stone as she thinks about earning a degree in social work and re-entering the workforce.

Other AmeriCorps members, like Peggy Rankin who is in her fourth year of service through LEAP at the Sherburn PreK, are retired professionals looking to give back to their communities. Members who complete their service term receive an award which can be used for paying off student loans or furthering their education. Those members who are 55 or older can gift their award to a child or grandchild. Peggy Rankin gifted her education awards to grandchildren in college.

As we have experienced this past year, we are all invested in helping our neighbors and making this region a place we are proud to call home. It has been incredible to see the impact that AmeriCorps has had in on children and nonprofits in our region over the past 26 years.

We are currently accepting full- and half-time applications for the 2021 – 2022 school year for AmeriCorps LEAP. For questions or to apply, contact Barbara Gunderson, AmeriCorps Director, at 507-456-0353 or Learn more about AmeriCorps at

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