This reporter had a choice of four meetings to attend last Tuesday evening, Sept. 19, two for the City of New Richmond, one for the Village of Somerset and the annual meeting for the New Richmond Area Community Foundation (NRACF).

Since its inception in 1980, the NRACF has grown into a model organization, one now being sought out as an example by surrounding communities. From modest financial means, leadership has grown its fund balance to over $4 million awarding nearly $500,000 in grants and pass through funds in 2016.

Past NRACF Chair Paul Mayer noted contributing to the foundation's investment success has been its affiliation with the St. Croix Valley Foundation (SCVF). Last year, that membership resulted in a 12 percent return on the foundation's investments.

The foundation embraced a significant change in philosophy beginning in 2008, to become more than just a bank raising and distributing money, to become an active participant in the community. They adopted three ideals to guide their future endeavors: leadership, philanthropy and collaboration. Those ideals lead to the formation of the Leadership Trust Initiative (LTI), one of the two most significant contributions the foundation has made to the community of New Richmond so far. LTI is about helping citizens identify, fulfill, and sustain their capacity as leaders and contribute to the community's sustainability and self-determination. To date, LTI has graduated nine classes providing 185 community leaders.

To better understand where to employ money, time and energy, the NRACF undertook its second most significant contribution, the FutureWalk initiative. Meeting in person with more than 400 community members over three years, FutureWalk delivered six destiny drivers, which guide the foundation's ongoing reinvestment of resources into the community: leadership, literacy, pathways, hunger, shelter and economic development.

Foundation Chair Tim O'Brien began the evening by recognizing the efforts of current and past board members and reminding the audience of the foundation's core purpose.

"We choose to be a catalyst and a conduit for improving the fabric of our community," he said.

O'Brien recounted some of the productive partnerships the foundation has engaged in recently including the New Richmond Recreation Partnership (NRRP), a collaborative project between the City, the School District, NRACF and the Centre. The goal of the NRRP is to centralize all of the information pertaining to what there is to do in New Richmond, who to contact and where to go, into a "one click, one call," mechanism. The NRRP has taken the first step and is close to launching a website early next year to begin publicly brokering that information.

O'Brien went on to announce that the St. Croix Valley Foundation is about to launch a three-to-five year, $7.5 million endowment campaign that involves all ten affiliates.

"The goal is to raise $7.5 million, of which $2.5 million or $250,000 will go back to each affiliate," said O'Brien.

O'Brien then reported, that after a careful and competitive hiring process, the foundation was proud to announce Margret Swanson as its new part-time executive director, elected unanimously.

"I am so honored to have this position. When I first looked at the position and then did a little of my own research, I was so impressed by what a volunteer group had done to bring this foundation to where it is today. It is really, really impressive. I have a lot to learn from all of you. I really wanted this job. I saw the potential of where it could go," said Swanson.

The most meaningful part of the evening followed with presentations by board members Jean Needham and Rachel Sauvola regarding the work that needs to be done to address hunger in New Richmond.

Speaking as the Executive Director of the Five Loaves Food Shelf, Needham painted a disturbing picture of hunger in our backyard.

"We see the faces of what hunger does everyday. It might be a mom with a couple small kids whose husband is working two or three jobs and they're just not able to make ends meet. Or it could be a senior citizen who has worked their entire life for a pension that is fixed. Expenses have continued to go up so they don't have the money needed to keep that quality of food in the house. It's a lot of different faces with a lot of different needs and a lot of different reasons for why things are not as good we'd like them to be. Last month, we had 600 full service clients. We gave out 19,000 pounds of food. If you do the math that means each individual goes home with about 25 pounds of food for that month. Twenty-five pounds of food won't get them through one week and there are three more weeks out there. A recent study showed that for the city of New Richmond with about 3,200 households, 51 percent percent of those 3,200 households fall into the Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) category. It means the mission to serve our neighbor is very, very real," said Needham.

Sauvola followed with an update on the year-old school farm project known as the Student Opportunities with Agricultural Resources (SOAR) Educational Center. The farm is a unique collaborative project between the School District, City of New Richmond and the New Richmond Airport Commission. She reported a number of goals have been reached.

"We have doers, we have donors and we have door openers and you are all gathered here tonight. Presently at the school farm we have 34 animals that have been donated by 11 different farm families in the community. Four of the steers will be finishing out and going into school lunch this year. We've always planned to eat the food we are raising. We also have 20 chickens, six ducks and a goat. We planted 6.5 acres of rye. It didn't quite end up as we expected, but that's how farming works and those are important lessons for students to learn. We also have a 2-acre garden at another location donated by Al Clark at All Exteriors. Into that garden we planted 40 rows and more than 1,500 plants. So far, we have harvested over 200 pounds of food which has gone into school lunches," said Sauvola.

Sauvola reported that visitors from five different states have made trips to see the farm.

She also took time to recognize the Dennis and Jackie Mitchell family and the Jeff and Becky Van Dyk family for successfully nominating the school farm for a Monsanto Grow Rural America Grant in the amount of $25,000.

The evening concluded with a passing of the torch as outgoing Chair O'Brien handed over his leadership responsibilities to new Chair Troy Boe.

Boe promised to make hunger one of his top priorities moving forward.

"Hunger is a huge issue in our community. There are way too many children and families that are going to bed hungry. That is simply unacceptable and I am going to do everything in my power as Chair of this board to make sure that we do a better job of taking care of the people in this community and making sure that they can eat," said Boe.

One could not walk away from Tuesday's meeting without being impressed by all the good work the foundation has accomplished and grateful for the generosity both spiritually and financially of so many caring community members. Visionary leadership, principled decision-making and compassion have made the NRACF into the heartbeat of this community.