Stories of Service


She Loved Her Small Hometown, and After College, Was Able to Serve There in AmeriCorps

Hilary Kelly is a kid magnet. When she walks into a room, children are around her. It’s clear she loves it. As one of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s (SMIF) AmeriCorps LEAP members, she saw it as her role to try to give children the ears and eyes working parents may not always be able to provide. “Parents are working hard these days,” said Kelly.  “I can say ‘today’s the day I’m going to be the 30 minutes of extra attention they may not get at home or don’t always  get in a 20-student classroom.’”

Kelly was born and raised in St. Charles. She was the first in her family to go to a four-year university. “I first heard about the field of social work from my advisor,” said Kelly. “Once I did, I realized that was the path I wanted to take.” After her internship at Nicollet School District, she knew working in a small town was a priority. “I absolutely fell in love with that rural community,” she said of Nicollet. “I’d always loved St. Charles, but that internship experience reinforced my love for small communities and wanting to serve in a community where I got to know everyone – I loved it!”

When her college mentor told her about AmeriCorps, Hilary explored her options to serve in Minnesota and was quickly sold on SMIF’s AmeriCorps LEAP program. LEAP stands for Learning Early Achieves Potential, and the program places up to 20 full-time members in early childhood settings across SMIF’s 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.” Kelly returned to her hometown of St. Charles to serve two years as a LEAP member.

Heather Millard is the Early Childhood Initiative coordinator for St. Charles, works as the Early Childhood Program Coordinator, and supervises Kelly. For Millard, one of the biggest benefits of the AmeriCorps position is the community connections; Kelly splits between being in preschools and working with families through St. Charles’s Early Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) program. “The kids see Hilary at school as well as at ECFE programs, and it’s just one more secure thing, one more positive connection they might not otherwise get…that’s huge for little kids.”

After her service, Kelly is off to the next step of her career: grad school. This fall, she’s enrolled at the University of Minnesota to get her Masters of Social work. “I remember Tim [Penny] talking at SMIF’s annual luncheon about community vitality, about you as an individual can go out, get an education, spread your wings and ultimately bring that knowledge back,” said Kelly. “That really resonated with me and what I want to do…I’m excited to be a city girl for a little bit, and then come back and work in elementary school setting, whether in St. Charles or another community.”

This member bio has been edited from a longer article on SMIF’s impact in St. Charles. To read the full article, click here

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