Earlier this month, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) hosted its annual luncheon at the Owatonna Country Club. It was another outstanding event with some 200 of our partners from across the region. Together we celebrated our past year's success stories, with our theme of "Investing in Children."

Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont was our master of ceremonies. Art Rolnick, senior fellow, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, gave the keynote address highlighting his research on the economic benefits derived from early childhood education. We know our foundation's dollars invested in early childhood do provide great returns - we see these success stories firsthand. But for our partners to hear about the sound, economic returns from Roinick, the former senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, was powerful. He stressed that quality early education provides a high rate of return (up to 18 percent annually), and he reported on current efforts to provide scholarships to quality early childhood centers for all at-risk children in Minnesota.

At our luncheon, the Fairmont Early Childhood Initiative was named our 2012 Partner of the Year. Created in 2003, this ECI (SMIF has 22 in total) has completed numerous early childhood projects and programs and continues to be a successful promoter of early childhood education in the Fairmont community. Many early childhood advocates from Fairmont attended the luncheon, reflecting a community that is in full support of investing in its youngest citizens. From the police chief, to the schools, to the ECFE, to the Chamber of Commerce, Fairmont is a community united around making sure all their children have an opportunity to succeed.

We also awarded our second annual One Big Thing Grant at our luncheon. First Children's Finance and The Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association jointly received the $100,000 grant. These organizations will team up to implement the "Quality Family Child Care Program" in both Steele and Watonwan counties. Through this project, they will provide business development programming, training, as well as one-on-one mentoring with approved curriculum to providers leading to a Parent Aware quality rating. We know that quality early childhood care is where it begins for our children, and we expect this project to increase the number of quality home-based childcare options in Steele and Watonwan counties.

As always, our work here at SMIF is made possible through our many partners and supporters who share our vision for southern Minnesota. We thank all who attended our luncheon and those who have supported us in the past year.

As we begin transitioning into next year, we'll be wrapping up our year of focus on early childhood and now move to put the spotlight on our foundation's entrepreneur development work. For more information about our program areas - or to view the online edition of our 2012 annual report-visit www.smifoundation.org.

Tim Penney is president and CEO of SMIF. He welcomes your comments and questions. You can reach him at timp@smifoundation.org or (507) 455-3215.