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Southwest Initiative Foundation aims to help children and families through assisting their parents at work

The Southwest Initiative Foundation has launched the first Employer Resource Network in Minnesota, a program geared toward employee retention and recruitment by helping workers' families. Five regional businesses have signed on to the pilot program.

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In May 2021, a car parade in honor of local health care workers drove by Bethesda in Willmar, celebrating the staff there. In an effort to keep staff in a challenging employment climate, Bethesda has joined the Southwest Initiative Foundation Employer Resource Network. The program helps find resources for employees who might be struggling outside of work, in an attempt to help them on the job. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — In 2016, the Southwest Initiative Foundation made a commitment to do all it could to help children have the best start in life, called the Grow Our Own Initiative . That included the understanding that one of the best ways to help children is to help their families.

"There is an ecosystem around children that includes their families," said Diana Anderson, CEO and president of the Southwest Initiative Foundation , a nonprofit community foundation based in Hutchinson, Minnesota. It serves the 18 counties of southwest Minnesota and two Native American nations.

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SWIF CEO and President Diana Anderson

As someone who worked in health care human resources for nearly a decade, Anderson understands how an employee's private life could negatively impact their career. Issues such as child care, medical concerns and financial problems can add a significant amount of stress on a family and its children and could even cause a parent to have to leave their job.

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"It is a house of cards, any small thing that happens can really cause that to fall apart," Anderson said. "That really gets in the way of them being able to be successful at work."

Starting in July, the foundation launched the Employer Resource Network. Built upon the national Employer Resource Network USA model, the network provides employers and their employees a navigator to a variety of resources, plans and programs that can assist employees in need and in turn help employers keep their workforce.

It took the Southwest Initiative Foundation about three years to establish its program, the first in Minnesota. It joins 11 other states with Employer Resource Network USA models.

"When we first learned of this concept, other networks in the country were talking about these remarkable results," Anderson said. "Retention rates quadrupled, turnover fell dramatically, employees reported being more satisfied and engaged and in turn were more productive."

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Towmaster Trailers and Truck Equipment, of Litchfield, is one of five regional businesses taking part in the Southwest Initiative Foundation Employer Resource Network pilot program. The goal of the program is to help both employers and employees to become successful. Contributed / Towmaster Trailers and Truck Equipment file photo

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Five businesses in the foundation's coverage area signed up to take part in this pilot program. The businesses are Bethesda , which provides seniors with long-term care and residence options with locations in Willmar, Olivia and New London; Jackpot Junction Casino in the Lower Sioux Indian Community; Minnesota Rubber & Plastics and Towmaster Trailers and Truck Equipment from Litchfield ; and Jonti-Craft in Wabasso. The businesses pay to have access to the Employer Resource Network. The Bush Foundation also provided the Southwest Initiative Foundation with funding to get the pilot program off the ground, Anderson said.

SWIF hired Jean Spaulding to be the organization's Employer Resource Network success coach. Spaulding works one-on-one with employees to help find solutions to issues facing the workers.

"Jean is that connector," Anderson said.

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Jean Spaulding, SWIF Employer Resource Network Success Coach

Spaulding has an extensive background in economic and business development and human resources, and holds a master certification in health and life coaching. She has worked for the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission and recently was the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economy Security Act coordinator for Kandiyohi County.

Employees of the partner businesses can reach out to Spaulding when they need help, or can be referred to her through the companies' human resources departments. Spaulding will then meet with the employee, including at their workplace, to understand their needs.

Her job is to "find out what is going on with that family," whether it is being behind on rent or trying to find a child care provider on short notice, Spaulding said. Sometimes these issues can be so dire it could mean an employee having to quit work, which is a negative for the workplace, especially at a time when finding trained workers is a challenge.

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Once Spaulding understands the immediate problem, she gets to work to find a solution. That could be connecting the employee with emergency financial assistance, finding transportation, lining up a new day care provider or starting paperwork for needed medical assistance. She reaches out to other community nonprofits and resources such as Lutheran Social Services, or even the partner business' own employee assistance program, to find solutions.

Her focus is to "assist in getting through that first traumatic instance they are in," Spaulding said.

Once the emergency is solved, Spaulding can also assist with long-term solutions. Spaulding will be a support for the people she helps at whatever level they are comfortable with. Spaulding, using the Employer Resource Network, can educate a person on how to take the steps to better their lives and circumstances, but doesn't force them down any one road.

"People, when given the options and recourse, really know what is best for themselves and their lives," Anderson said. "That is very empowering for people, to have control over their own circumstances when the choices are laid out for them."

Through her work, Spaulding can act as an advocate for the entire staff, letting the management know what sort of problems the workforce is facing and help find ways to fix it.

"I think the employers are engaged," and looking for ways to recruit and retain their employees and are open to new ways, Spaulding said. "They are out-of-the-box kind of thinkers."

The foundation leadership hopes it will see the same success as other Employer Resource Networks have found including high employee retention rates, increased employee satisfaction and improved workplace culture. Success can also be a reduction in the need for public assistance and increased family stability, which is good for the entire community. If the new Employer Resource Network is successful, it could be expanded, opening it to more businesses and a larger geographic area.

"I am optimistic that we will see results that are exciting to employers and provide the momentum to add more network clusters," Anderson said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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