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Initiative turning to those who make big difference

WILLMAR -- A new initiative by the United Way of West Central Minnesota hopes to harness the volunteer power of an important demographic -- younger adults who are emerging leaders in their communities.

The project, known as Advance, will officially be launched Aug. 26 with a group cleanup of the Robbins Island Park in Willmar.

United Way staff said they've long wanted to do something that would engage the 21- to 40-something age group in being more active with community volunteering.

"It's been in our strategic plan," said Stacey Roberts, executive director of the United Way of West Central Minnesota.

"It's a way for them to meet the needs of the community and support our nonprofits and network with each other. That's what we hope this does -- that we can bring a group together and collectively have an impact we couldn't do single-handedly."

Heather Thompson, who's on the Advance advisory team, sees it as a chance for young adults not only to get involved in something that's meaningful to them but also to develop connections with local nonprofits, as well as build leadership skills.

"I think it's a great opportunity for emerging leaders," she said. "I think a lot of times we don't really know what's available. This is a way to bring that forward. Our hope is to do volunteer projects in all of the communities which United Way covers."

Everyone who joins Advance will pay a $25 "investment" that goes into a project fund to help pay for paint, lumber and other supplies. Group volunteer projects, such as the cleanup at Robbins Island, will be organized four times a year.

Throughout the year, participants in Advance also can sign up for what Gina Lieser calls "speed volunteering" opportunities. These are smaller, more limited projects to which volunteers can contribute as time permits, said Lieser, the volunteer services coordinator with the regional United Way.

"You can contribute an hour that fits your schedule," she said. "It might be an hour at the Food Shelf, stocking shelves. It might be an hour with the Growmobile or Meals on Wheels. ... You can commit to what you want."

An advisory team has been put together to guide the initiative. A steering committee will hold a strategic planning meeting in September to begin setting priorities.

Thompson is enthusiastic about the potential. At one time she worked for the Twin Cities United Way, where she oversaw the development of an emerging leaders program. During her time with the agency, the program grew from 500 to 7,000 young adult volunteers, she said. "It was amazing to see what this young group could do for the community."

Although membership in Advance is targeted to 20- to 40-year-olds, it isn't limited to those who are employed or who are business professionals, Roberts said.

"It can be anybody in any profession, working or non-working, who wants to be engaged in the community," she said. "Community leaders can take many forms."

As these volunteers become familiar with the range and mission of local nonprofit organizations, many of them might be spurred to become more active with a specific nonprofit and possibly even step into a leadership role, such as on a nonprofit board of directors, Roberts said.

"Every volunteer that goes develops a relationship with that program," she said. "Every agency benefits so much more by bringing in volunteers to see the work they do."

Volunteers eligible to join Advance may sign up by calling the United Way of West Central Minnesota at 320-235-1050 or by registering online at

The inaugural project at Robbins Island is from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on Aug. 26 and will include painting shelters and picnic tables and cleaning the park's trails. It will be followed by a social hour.

Lieser hopes for a turnout of at least 50 to 75 volunteers.

"We're hoping to get a lot of people out there," she said. "We will keep all of those people busy."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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