Dorothy Williams is full of stories, appreciates history and loves people, especially seniors. She’s applied all those qualities to enriching life for older adults. The accomplishments of her 85 years make quite a list, but Dorothy didn’t achieve them alone. Her husband, Ron, was right alongside, ready to tackle each new project she dreamed up.
Ron and Dorothy both moved to Benson as children. They met at Benson High School and married in 1953, making their home in rural Benson for five decades before moving to town. It never occurred to them to move anywhere else.
“We liked the community and were involved in a lot of different things. There’s always a lot going on,” Dorothy said.
Along with three grown daughters, Ron and Dorothy now have seven grandchildren. A survey of the photos on walls and shelves in the Williams’ home gives a sense of how proud they are of their family.
Next to the photos are mementos and awards from Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF), given over many years of service. In 2001, the foundation honored Dorothy and nine others in the region for their outstanding contributions to the lives of older adults. Dorothy served on the advisory board of the Paul and Alma Schwan Aging Trust Fund (ATF) at the foundation, where her energy and ideas spread beyond Swift County to the whole region.
In 2003, she received the premiere Southwest Initiative Foundation Award for promoting our mission. Ron and Dorothy were also ambassadors for SWIF at the annual Life Connections expo in Willmar and have attended countless events, trainings and meetings.
“I just loved all the meetings and Life Connections. I met a lot of good people and had a lot of fun,” Ron said.
Dorothy’s career serving seniors took off in 1987, when she became the Swift County Senior Citizen Advocate. She planned all manner of activities. As a member of Swift County Historical Society, Dorothy was inspired to invite local grade-schoolers to the museum where older adults could share their experiences of growing up. “School Days at the Museum” gave kids a tour of the museum. They heard the lived experiences of senior volunteers, who served as tour guides and hosted stations exhibiting artifacts from everyday life in different eras.
“The first year we had 600 kids. That was a lot of kids!” Dorothy said, noting the program continues today, and was highlighted by the National Council on Aging.
The foundation’s current focus on our kids and Grow Our Own is possible because of the support of Dorothy, Ron and others who have contributed to vibrant, welcoming communities for all in southwest Minnesota. And the region has an incredible resource in the ATF to support more efforts that connect kids and seniors in meaningful ways.
When the Paul and Alma Schwan Aging Trust Fund celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2001, it was Dorothy’s idea to travel the region hosting cake and coffee receptions and planting trees in 10 different communities, including one at Scofield Place in Benson.
“Ronnie and I worked on that together,” Dorothy said. “I think the trust fund is such an important part of the foundation. It’s important that older people are not forgotten.”
A Korean War veteran, Ron spent his career farming 450 acres and sold automobiles, chainsaws and snowmobiles, among other things, before retiring. When he was diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago, the Williams took a step back from their involvement with SWIF. Ron made a full recovery, and they remain close friends of the foundation — and boosters for seniors in Benson and beyond. The couple has supported the foundation by making gifts to the Aging Trust Fund faithfully for 26 years.
“Dorothy and Ron have brought so much joy to the work of the foundation with their willing hearts and hands to serve. And through their generosity, they’ve positioned SWIF to engage and support our next generation of seniors in things that really matter. It’s so important to have partners who are willing to grow and change with us as our work unfolds and we evolve to address our region’s changing needs,” said Liz Cheney, Director of Philanthropy at the foundation.
“It would be sad if we didn’t have the foundation because it benefits so many people. It’s so needed, and it’s important for the kids in our region,” Dorothy said. “There’s so much value in brainstorming and getting ideas from each other. We can all learn from each other.”
In 1990, Marvin Schwan of Schwan’s Company endowed the Paul and Alma Schwan Aging Trust Fund as a lasting tribute to his parents. Paul and Alma Schwan had visions of a healthy future for southwest Minnesota, and the fund that bears their name is dedicated to preserving that vision of prosperity for the region. Southwest Initiative Foundation hosts the Aging Trust Fund, managing its endowment and directing its use.
“This permanent asset of the foundation is a vital resource as we create vibrant communities that actively involve, value and support older adults, both active and frail, to effectively accommodate changing needs,” said Nancy Fasching, SWIF Community Impact Director.
The Aging Trust Fund maximizes the social and economic contributions of elders throughout southwest Minnesota by keeping them well and engaged in community life. Southwest Minnesota leads the state in percentage of population age 85 or better, according to data from Minnesota Compass. In two of our region’s counties – Lac qui Parle and Big Stone – more than a quarter of the population is age 65 or better. Prairie Five Community Action Council is working with communities in those counties, as well as Chippewa, Swift and Yellow Medicine, to address local needs and gaps, enabling older adults to age in place. That project received funding this fiscal year from the Aging Trust Fund.