Ten years ago, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation began investing in children by creating the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative in partnership with the five other initiative foundations across greater Minnesota. We saw this effort in early childhood as a natural extension of our overall work focused on economic development. Knowing that these children will grow to be our employees, CEOs, volunteers, and community leaders in the future, supporting their education now is a smart investment with a significant return.

That's why the six Minnesota initiative foundations (MIFs) developed the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative to strengthen early care and education for young children and their families. It's the most important investment communities can make for the future.

In 2003, thanks to a $3.2 million grant from The McKnight Foundation, the MIFs were able to launch the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative. Continuation grants from McKnight have sustained the network of the Minnesota ECIs to ensure that every young child has the best possible start toward a healthy life of learning, achieving, and succeeding.

The early childhood initiatives' overarching goal is to work with communities throughout Greater Minnesota to develop ECI coalitions. These teams of local citizens and organizations have more than 5,000 members representing diverse sectors - from early care educators to business and civic leaders. To date, the ECI coalitions have developed over 90 early childhood communities.

Today, SMIF has 20 early childhood initiative communities across its 20-county region of southern Minnesota. Each community has developed a plan for improving the lives of the youngest citizens by implementing a variety of projects: literacy efforts, mental health focused activities, kindergarten transition/readiness, and support for early childhood care providers. Through helping to increase awareness about the importance of early brain development, they have helped forge new partnerships with local schools, families, and home visitors, and providers. Over the past decade, SMIF has invested over $1.3 million into these 20 communities and the community return has been extensive: more children ready for kindergarten, increased collaboration and partnership amongst organizations, and a growth of community leadership.

Getting community members from all sectors involved isn't always easy, but when communities successfully engage their members, great things happen. For instance, Fairmont, which put together one of the most diverse coalitions including the chamber of commerce president, county commissioners, chief of police, medical center staff, early childhood professionals, public and private schools, social services, and the media, was our 2012 Partner of the Year. The ECI has completed numerous early childhood projects and programs and continues to be a successful promoter of early childhood education in the community. Fairmont and all of our ECI communities are united around making sure all their children have an opportunity to succeed.

If you are interested in learning more about our ECIs, contact Teri Steckelberg at teris@smifoundation.org.

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