From the Foundation: Starting young teaching future leaders

Hilary Kelly works with the children at her AmeriCorps LEAP site in St. Charles. (Photo courtesy Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation)

Hilary Kelly is a child magnet. When she walks into a room, kids are around her. It’s clear she loves it. As one of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s AmeriCorps Learn Early Achieves Potential (LEAP), members, she saw it as her role to try to give children the ears and eyes that working parents may not always be able to provide.

“I can say, ‘today’s the day I’m going to be the 30 minutes of attention they don’t get at home or can’t get in a 20-student classroom,’” Kelly said.

SMIF’s AmeriCorps LEAP program places up to 20 full-time members in early childhood settings across SMIF’s 20-county region to focus on social and emotional skill development so kids are ready to learn when they get to kindergarten.

“You can learn hard skills as you get older and build upon those,” said Kelly, who served two years in SMIF’s AmeriCorps LEAP program. “But a lot of kids lack social and emotional skills like compassion and empathy. Too often, those social and emotional skills get pushed to the side.”

The AmeriCorps LEAP program is great for someone thinking about a career in early childhood, whether a recent college grad, a retiree, or someone looking to make the switch. My son Marcus served in the LEAP program in 2011-2012. He sees it as a way to bridge cultural gaps.

“AmeriCorps transplants young people to serve in communities unlike their own,” Marcus said. “What better way to foster understanding and empathy across disparate populations?”

“AmeriCorps members prove to be better workers and citizens in society,” said Minnesota Senator Al Franken. I agree. Over 20 years ago, I had the honor to help create the AmeriCorps program while serving in Congress. At SMIF, we know that investments in children are an investment in our future. With an aging cohort of child care providers, the AmeriCorps LEAP program is a great way for more people to launch their career in early childhood.

Preschool supervisors are quick to see the value of this program.

“AmeriCorps LEAP members’ presence in the classroom is a huge added value to our Head Start classrooms and to every child in our program,” said Erin L. Visker, Head Start mental health and disabilities advisor at Minnesota Valley Action Council Inc. “By taking some of the social-emotional teaching and learning away from our classroom teachers, this frees our staff to focus more on reaching academic goals, which in turn, processes better outcomes in all areas of learning for our children.”

SMIF is actively recruiting for 2017-2018 AmeriCorps LEAP members. The term runs until July 15, 2018. Members receive a living allowance, health care and a $5,775 Segal Educational Award, along with monthly trainings. Find more information and a link to the online application at

Tim Penny is the President and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Previously, he represented Minnesota’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982-1994. 

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