This fall, there will be over 20 AmeriCorps LEAP (Learning Early Achieves Potential) members helping young children at Head Start and other early childhood sites across southern Minnesota. This is possible thanks to another year of funding through the Corporation for National and Community Service and State Commission - ServeMinnesota. This is the 19th consecutive year Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) has been awarded an AmeriCorps grant, making our organization one of the longest-running grantee programs in Minnesota

The investment in the AmeriCorps LEAP program each year represents almost $475,000 in value. This includes a federal grant award of $275,000 and matching contribution by SMIF and its partners of $200,000. This LEAP Initiative is part of our commitment to support early childhood efforts so children are ready to learn and succeed. Annually SMIF invests well over $1 million in early childhood efforts, including AmeriCorps LEAP. Collectively, these investments focus on building social and emotional school readiness skills in children ages 3 to 5 who are members of under-resourced families.

Our LEAP members are making a difference by working one-on-one with children who are falling behind in the skills necessary for self-regulation and focusing to learn in kindergarten. They help connect parents to community resources and promote routine reading in the home through the distribution of ABDO Publishing books throughout the school year. In addition, their daily attention strengthens the impact of early childhood education across southern Minnesota.

There is no doubt that LEAP outcomes over the past four years are boosting skills and delivering classroom benefit for hundreds of children. For example, the Minnesota Valley Community Action Head Start site reports that after the LEAP member's service, data collected by teaching staff indicate that on average, scores assessed with Creative Curriculum in the Social Emotional area increased from 13 percent in the fall of 2009 to 54 percent in the spring of 2010 for 3- and 4-year-olds. The Social Emotional Capacity for 4 and 5 year olds increased from 40 percent in the fall to 80 percent in the spring.

An AmeriCorps national service experience can be life-changing for the member participant as well. My son, Marcus, served as an AmeriCorps LEAP member this past year, so I know firsthand what a powerful experience it was for him. According to Marcus, LEAP gave him focus-moving from the generic desire "to help people" to the concrete, direct experience of working with specific children, implementing tools and strategies tailored for their success.

He recently told me, "Serving in LEAP gave me something to look forward to (laughing and having fun with kids), and challenges to dwell on (unique social-emotional deficiencies that required creative thinking). Above all, I felt proud serving my site. Happy, challenged, but mostly proud to serve such a great group of kids."

I believe this service is a perfect opportunity for someone just out of college but unsure of what to do next - like my son, Marcus. 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. I encourage you to contact Barbara Gunderson at if this interests you.

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