Guest Commentary: Make a difference in southern Minnesota

Published 6:29 pm Friday, March 25, 2022

Tim Penny

President of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

One of my proudest moments as a congressman was voting to support the creation of the national AmeriCorps program 27 years ago. Little did I know at the time how central this program would become to our culture of volunteerism and giving back to our communities. Even more surprising, and delightful, to me is the fact that I am now president of an organization that has stewarded AmeriCorps programs for the full 27 years. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) we place people in service roles across our 20-county region through two AmeriCorps programs.

AmeriCorps, a federal agency, brings people together to tackle the country’s most pressing challenges, through national service and volunteering. AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers serve with organizations dedicated to the improvement of communities. These programs help make service to others a cornerstone of our national culture and engages more than 75,000 Americans each year in intensive service to meet critical needs in community. SMIF has placed more than 600 AmeriCorps members throughout southern Minnesota over the past 27 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. We are currently accepting full- and half-time applications for the 2022 – 2023 school year for this program.

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. We are proud to work in partnership with Minnesota Farmers Market Association, Renewing the Countryside and Sustainable Farming Association by hosting two VISTAs who are working on a Local Foods Sustainability Project. Maeve Mallozzi-Kelly is in her second year of service, and we recently welcomed Kathleen Rykhus as the second VISTA working on this project. Together they are creating a much stronger trajectory for building farmers’ markets and food producers’ capacity across SMIF’s region. We are also currently hiring three VISTA members to help spur entrepreneurial activity and create more welcoming communities in the region. These positions are in Red Wing, Blue Earth and here at SMIF.

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, Katelyn Kruger, is serving in St. Peter at an after-school program called Hikmah and is simultaneously earning her master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. Her experience in the program has influenced her to work more directly with underserved populations in the future. One of our members from last year, 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 considers re-entering the workforce and earning a degree in social work.

Many AmeriCorps members are retired professionals looking to give back to their communities. Bruce Boyce served as an AmeriCorps LEAP Initiative member from 2010-2012 after he retired from a 32-year career as the Waseca County Administrator. His experience in LEAP influenced him to begin a second career as a paraprofessional for eight years. He recently shared, “I really believe that all citizens should engage in some form of service to their country and community. In that sense AmeriCorps continued my lifelong pattern of civic engagement.”

These positions are paid, and members receive many benefits including an education 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.

It has been incredible to see the impact that AmeriCorps has had in our country over the past 27 years. Even more so, it has been wonderful to see the direct result that this program has had on the children, nonprofits and communities in our own backyard.

For questions or to apply for LEAP or for VISTA, contact Barbara Gunderson, AmeriCorps Director, at 507-456-0353 or barbarag@smifoundation.org. Learn more about AmeriCorps at AmeriCorps.gov.

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