It's an exciting year for AmeriCorps - it's the 20th anniversary. In 1993, the Corporation for National and Community Service developed the AmeriCorps program as a way for Americans to give back their communities.

While serving as a southern Minnesota congressman, I was proud to cast my vote in support of creating AmeriCorps. Today, roughly 80,000 Americans offer their talents annually toward important community service projects. What's exciting for Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation is that we have been a sponsor of the AmeriCorps LEAP (Learning Early Achieves Potential) for all 20 years. SMIF is proud of to have been a leader in Minnesota in dedicating its program to early childhood education.

This fall, there will be over 20 AmeriCorps LEAP members helping young children at Head Start and other early childhood sites across southern Minnesota. Our LEAP members serve by working one-on-one with children who are falling behind in the skills necessary for success in kindergarten.

Our work is based on the significance of brain development from birth to 5 years. It is critically important that children are taught skills to manage behaviors so they can focus to learn in kindergarten. These emotional regulation skills are exactly what kindergarten teachers say is vital for children entering kindergarten so that they are prepared for the structure that is needed to learn in the classroom.

LEAP members also promote and model out-loud, routine reading in the home with parents and caregivers. Through a partnership with ABDO Publishing, SMIF receives a donation of preschool books, and LEAP members are able to give children they serve a series of books to build home libraries. Reading at home allows children to bond with adults and increase word awareness, which is also necessary for kindergarten success. Experts agree that a child needs at least 40,000 word exposure to be on equal footing with average child entering kindergarten. There is no doubt that LEAP outcomes over the past four years are boosting skills and delivering classroom benefit for hundreds children across our southern Minnesota region.

In addition to the outcomes for our pre-school children, the personal benefit to AmeriCorps LEAP participants is also significant. An AmeriCorps national service experience can be life-changing. I believe this service is a perfect opportunity for someone just out of college, but unsure of career options. This is also a great opportunity for someone who is retired and wants to positively affect the lives of children in their community or for someone who is unemployed and looking for a new experience. Bottom line: This is a tremendous opportunity for anyone who loves children and is looking for a way to make a difference. We still have a few openings to fill for the current term. I encourage you to contact Barbara Gunderson at barbarag@smifoundation.org if you are interested in learning more about a year of service with AmeriCorps.

Tim Penny is president/CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. He welcomes your comments and questions. You can reach him at timp@smifoundation.org or (507) 455-3215.