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By Lisa Meyers McClintick | Photography by Paul Middlestaedt and John Linn

In 2016, the Initiative Foundation awarded nearly $2.1 million in grants and scholarships. Here’s how a few organizations are using those opportunities to take already great work to the next level.

The efforts can start as small as varnishing a Mille Lacs County toddler’s teeth with fluoride to improve dental health and school readiness. Or they can be as far-reaching as funding an economic development specialist to coordinate Sherburne County’s growth as it braces for Xcel Energy to retire two of its three coal-fired generators at Sherburne County Generating Station (Sherco) starting in the 2020s.

The truth is that on any given day, the Initiative Foundation’s grants ripple across Central Minnesota into the 14 counties it serves. “Sometimes we’re the only grantor an organization has to help it stay strong and vital,” said Matt Varilek, Initiative Foundation president. “Sometimes we’re a player in a larger mix of funders. But every gift we give is intentional, purposeful and crucial to helping our communities thrive—and, in some cases, survive.”

In 2016, the Initiative Foundation awarded nearly $2.1 million in grants and scholarships through its Innovation Fund, hosted Partner Funds and its statewide Aquatic Invasive Species initiative. Here’s a look at three of the 266 grants and scholarships recipient organizations received in 2016 and the good they’ve brought to the communities they serve.

Marque Morris: "Performing game me the opportunity to change into the confident man I am today."

Boys & Girls Clubs

Benton, Sherburne & Stearns Counties.

When teens at St. Cloud Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota earn their blue junior staff shirts for three K-12 Club programs, it’s with pride and accomplishment, said Aimee Minnerath, marketing manager.

This honor isn’t a case of everyone-gets-a-trophy. Rather, becoming a junior staff member is the result of extensive training through the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Career Launch program, which received a $5,000 grant from the Initiative Foundation. The online program guides junior volunteers, including kids in seventh grade or higher, through surveys to define their interests.

Career Launch helps match young people with career options, build a resume, write cover letters and apply for jobs. The local club then walks participants through mock interviews and even offers advice on what to wear and etiquette tips for answering the phone—a skill that is in surprisingly short supply in the age of texting and Snapchat.

Kids who land the coveted staff positions at K-6 afterschool programs or community jobs earn an income (some use their earnings to help their struggling families) while also gaining experience that could lead to a long-term career.

“Career Launch participants are not only getting skills for an entry-level job,” said Tom Wicks, director of operations for Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota. “They’re getting the assets for moving up and turning jobs into a career.”

Marque Morris, a high school junior, found work at Bonanza Steakhouse through the program. He also landed a summer scholarship to attend McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, which he visited on a Career Launch field trip. Voted 2017 Youth of the Year for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota, Morris builds on his music skills with East Side Club’s dance program and South Side Club’s digital music program.

Morris also wowed the audience at the Greater St. Cloud Community Pillars February meeting when he performed Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” in front of some 350 people.

“Performing at the Pillars event gave me the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and helped me change into the confident man I am today,” Morris said. “I was nervous, but afterward, I thought I could do anything if I could do that successfully.”

Left: EASY PEASY -  Kris Klopp, Mille Lacs County Community Health, applies dental varnish to Carter's Teeth.
Right: ALL SMILES - Keegan gets a sticker and a tooth-brushing kit as a reward for having his teeth varnished.

Childhood Dental Care

Mille Lacs County

Children’s smiles will be a little brighter and their health and learning will also improve with an effort to improve access to pediatric dental care in the region.

The Initiative Foundation in 2016 granted $10,000 to Mille Lacs County Public Health for a Cavity Free Birth to 5 program and another $8,500 to Cavity-free Little Panthers in Onamia. Another $25,000 has been granted to both programs in 2017.

Together, these organizations bridge a gaping need for the county’s 900 kids who qualify for medical assistance but cannot find dental care. Because Minnesota’s public reimbursements for exams and fillings are lower than actual costs—and among the lowest reimbursements in the nation—most private dentists have to limit the number of Medical Assistance patients they can take.

That’s a serious public health issue when you consider that kids without dental care can have decay, pain and other tooth problems that may impair their sleep, concentration at school and their speech.

“It affects a lot more than having a nice smile,” said Kris Klopp, Mille Lacs County Women, Infants and Children (WIC) coordinator and child and teen checkup coordinator. Low-income families who don’t get the nutrition they need or who drink bottled or well water without the fluoride that’s added to municipal water can be at a higher risk for tooth decay.

The dental program has sent county staff to Early Childhood and Family Education classes, preschool screenings and school open house events to offer educational materials and do fluoride varnishing, which gives teeth a protective coating. Staff at WIC clinics and home health nurses can also offer the service.

Mille Lacs Health System has made fluoride varnishing part of their regular child checkups at Onamia, Garrison and Isle since January this year.  This is also the first year families can get an appointment at a mobile dental clinic that makes 10 county visits this year, rotating between locations in Princeton, Milaca and Onamia.

The Foundation’s pediatric dental grants target Mille Lacs County, which has some of the lowest incomes in the region and the biggest gaps in dental care. The problem persists statewide, and lawmakers and the governor’s office this year are proposing to raise Medical Assistance payment rates, hoping to attract more dentists into the system. But their approaches differ, and in a year with many other demands on the state budget, it’s not clear where lawmakers will land.

"Meanwhile,” Varilek said, “our work at the Foundation is helping to meet an urgent need.”

IFN6251_0112.gifSherco Solutions: (Left to right) Dan Weber, assistant Sherburne County administrator, Greg Pruszinske, Becker city administrator, and Mark Osendorf, community relations and economic development manager at Xcel Energy, are part of a regional team working to diversify the Becker-area economy.

Preparing for Change

Sherburne County

The rumbles and beeps of construction crews are a familiar soundtrack throughout Sherburne County, Minnesota’s fastest-growing county. With its southern boundary nudging the outer Twin Cities metro and the northern edge touching St. Cloud, residents and businesses come for its smaller communities and more affordable housing while using nearby Interstate 94 and North Star commuter train to tap larger cities for jobs and employees.

“We don’t see growth as a problem but as an opportunity,” said Dan Weber, Sherburne County assistant county administrator and economic development specialist.

That growth, however, does come with challenges. City and county planners have to keep up with essential infrastructures, including wastewater treatment plants, roads and railroad routes and filling gaps in broadband coverage, according to Weber.

They’re also preparing for a seismic shift in the tax base once Xcel Energy retires two Sherco coal-fired generators during the next decade. That has the potential to eliminate about 300 jobs—75 percent of Becker’s tax base and 15 percent of the county’s tax base. A shutdown could also impact Liberty Paper, which uses steam from the plant to recycle corrugated containers into usable materials.

“The Sherco plant is really an economic driver for the region,” Varilek said, “so it’s a major issue.”

Xcel, which is working closely with local governments, may be able to keep some jobs if part of the plant can be converted to natural gas, but a bigger, wider effort is underway to attract new industries.

Funding from Benton, Sherburne, Stearns and Wright counties, along with an Initiative Foundation grant, is helping to pay for a staff position at Central Minnesota Jobs & Training Services in Monticello to coordinate regional planning and development efforts. The team approach helps the counties swap solutions for common problems while mapping growth to strengthen the broader region.

“We’re building relationships that wouldn’t have existed,” said Weber. “It will hopefully lead to a successful future.”

And that’s what Initiative Foundation programming is all about: to bring hope, help, healing, opportunity and prosperity to the region.


5 Tips for Successful Grant Proposals

  1. Do your homework. Sending the right proposal to the right funder is key. Your interests must align. Most funders list activities or expenses they will fund. Many also will list the size and range of typical grants. Do your research and spend your time wisely.

  2. Present a logical solution to a problem. Think of your proposal as a story with a beginning (the problem or opportunity is the need statement), middle (the solution is your program) and end (the results are your outcomes). Tell the funder what you are going to do, who is going to benefit and why they should care. 

  3.  Convince the funder you know what you’re doing. Demonstrate that you have a clear understanding of your community’s need and a strong programmatic response. After reading your proposal, the funder should feel confident that your organization would be a responsible steward of their funds.
  4. Tell the same story in the budget and the proposal narrative. Too many proposal writers pour their blood, sweat and tears into a beautifully crafted narrative. Budgets, unfortunately, often are an afterthought. Your project budget is another opportunity to tell your story and demonstrate your credibility, so align it to your narrative.

  5. Remember that funders are people. Pick up the phone and call (when appropriate) instead of relying solely on email. Foundation fundraising (like all fundraising) is about relationships. Initiative Foundation staff are drawn to this work because they love to help our region. Even if we can’t directly support your efforts, we do our best to connect you to other funders and sources of technical assistance or expertise.

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