Funds from the 1996 sale of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton sparked the idea for a community foundation in this town of about 1,400 on the Pomme de Terre River in Swift County. The Appleton Project managed the profits from the sale of the prison and made the lead gift to launch the Appleton Community Foundation (ACF).
“The main thrust was to get other people in the community thinking about reinvesting in their own community. There’s lots of different things in the community that need help. If a bunch of people give $100, you can do more together,” said Jim Massee, who was on the founding board of The Appleton Project. “Every community needs those players in town who can help with community and school projects, and a lot of times that’s the role of the local community foundations.”
They looked to invest the money wisely and provide for both long-term and immediate needs and searched for a partner with a local connection. It was a perfect fit for the Southwest Initiative Foundation’s (SWIF) pilot community foundation program. Diana Anderson, Director of Fund Development at SWIF in 1999, aided with strategic planning, mission, vision and capacity building.
ACF focused on serving as a permanent local catalyst, stimulating growth and the enrichment of the people of Appleton by inspiring leadership, hope, generosity, and the spirit of unity.
Becoming the fiscal host for the new Appleton Aquatic Center was one of the most ambitious projects ACF took on. There was a mysterious leak in the pool that kept draining all the water, and the price tag to update it was nearly $1 million. The new aquatic center would feature space for lap swim and swimming lessons, a deep end with dual-drop slide and diving board and a zero-entry pool that caters to the smallest swimmers.
Leslie Ehrenberg, a long-time ACF advisory board member, recruited volunteers to form the Appleton Swimming Pool Committee, which dove right in to fundraising and opened a project fund through ACF that grew to $312,000. In a December 2010 issue of The Appleton Press, a front-page article states Marilyn Pike brought in a plastic baggie filled with coins and a couple of dollars. In the bag was a note from her grandchildren: “I am giving $3.38 cents in pennies, a couple of nickels and a few dimes. Me and my brother and sister have been saving all year long in my piggy bank. We have been saving for the pool to ‘make a splash,’ and grandma added $2.”
“People here genuinely care. They are close knit and anytime there’s something going on there are people here to help you,” Leslie said.
Current challenges facing the community include the depressed agriculture economy and a high rate of low-income students: More than 60 percent of students at Appleton-Milan Elementary School qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
“Those financial burdens are a struggle. That’s where I think the community foundation can come in. We can help support and fill those gaps of need financially,” said Leslie.
Leslie, pictured at left, owns The Appleton Press and was making a delivery eight years ago when she happened upon an advisory board meeting for the community foundation and was asked to think about volunteering on the board. She served six years on the board, five as chair.
“I felt it would be a positive way to be a part of the community. I love that idea of being able to give back funds to people who need it,” Leslie said. “Community foundations are fun because you get to help and decide where to give. For me, the more important grants were for our youth and our seniors.”
Leslie and her husband, Steve, raised their three children in the Appleton community, and their oldest son, Tim, works at the newspaper office running a print shop. His wife, April, is a graphic designer there. Tim and April’s three kids have grown up in the office, coming to work with their parents. That’s how Leslie got the idea for another large ACF project fund, this time to update the local playground.
When Leslie’s second grandson was at the office, most days after nap time she’d take him to the Riverview Park Playground.
“I’d swing him on the swing and the whole thing would shake. It was in terrible condition,” Leslie said.
Community members both donated toward and helped build the new playground, which opened for play in 2016. ACF board members granted more than $19,000 to the project and paid for and served meals to the volunteers building the playground, which included Leslie and her grandson.
“When he asks if we can go to the playground, and I ask which one, he says, ‘You know the one we built,’” Leslie said. “It’s very cool to see the children and community feel ownership in the playground. It was an awesome project. Everybody came together.”
Having SWIF as a partner to process gifts and grants helped those major projects go smoothly and took some of the worry out of finances, Leslie said: “They made it easy. It wasn’t very hard to be a community foundation because of that.”
In total, ACF has awarded 269 grants totaling $595,168. Recent grants include new heating and air-conditioning at the Appleton Senior Citizens Building, picnic tables for a campground expansion, support for the local backpack food program and funding for Lac qui Parle Valley School band equipment.
“It’s really being part of a group that gave back and supported the community. Those who donate toward the endowment should feel the same way. Their dollars go a long way to support schools and organizations right here,” Leslie said.
Andrew Schmidt is current treasurer for ACF and has served four years on the advisory board.
“I grew up here, went off to college at Concordia Moorhead and had an opportunity to come back to the family bank,” said Andrew, who is vice president at Farmers & Merchants State Bank of Appleton. “I love the town because it’s a great place to have a family, raise kids. I appreciate the rural values and community atmosphere. If you have a problem, everybody pitches in and helps out.”
He’s impressed by the level of support people continue to provide for the local community foundation whenever there’s a fundraiser.
“We’ve been around now for quite a while and everybody kind of knows about us,” Andrew said. “It’s a very fun board to be on because you’re giving money to lots of different causes.”
Appleton is one of four pilot communities of Southwest Initiative Foundation’s local community foundation program, celebrating 20 years in 2019. Read more about the history of the local community foundation program.