Spring Valley Area Community Foundation President Sue Kolling outlined the activities of the foundation during 2013.   DAVID PHILLIPS/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Spring Valley Area Community Foundation President Sue Kolling outlined the activities of the foundation during 2013. DAVID PHILLIPS/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE

The Spring Valley Area Community Foundation unveiled a new project - a planet walk - and reviewed some of its accomplishments over the last year during its annual banquet Saturday evening at the Spring Valley Community Center.

"The foundation was created for the communities of Spring Valley, Wykoff and Ostrander. The goal is to strengthen our community, improve the quality of life and make it a great place to live, work and play," said foundation President Sue Kolling in introductory remarks at the banquet.

The guest speaker at the banquet was Jerry Williams, who talked about the impact of Destination Medical Center on the Spring Valley area (see related story).

Planet walk

Foundation Vice President Rod Thompson explained the newest project to improve the quality of life in the communities. Several months ago Kolling brought the idea of a planet walk to the board, which gave its support to developing one in Spring Valley.

A planet walk is basically a scale model of our solar system, said Thompson, taking it down from a billion to one. This scaled down replica makes the sun 4.5 feet wide, the earth half an inch wide and Pluto 3.5 miles away from the sun.

In a planet walk, models of the planets would be created in distances to scale throughout Spring Valley. Starting from a point in the center of the community, people on foot would be directed to each planet through a mapped route.

Thompson said the project would get people, particularly youth, engaged in the community, get them outside, make them more healthy and get them to exercise their minds.

"Basically, it's one more reason for people to come to Spring Valley, one more reason for them to walk through Spring Valley, use the trails, the parks, things that are already here," he said.

Not only is it hoped to bring people to the community to explore the walk and use local businesses, the planet walk will benefit the community by giving youth a good reason to get outside and become active as the project would provide a fun goal.

"We don't know if it is going to catch on...but every person it brings in and every person from our community that can get their kids out for one more reason...we look at as a win for everybody," said Thompson.

The project "really is an idea in process," but it is something the board is excited about, said Thompson.

Outdoor learning center

One project supported by the foundation that is already taking shape is an outdoor learning center in a courtyard at the Kingsland school in Spring Valley. Ann Priebe, Early Childhood Family Education coordinator and parent educator, gave an update on that project during the banquet.

Kingsland has a "great courtyard" that provides a nice green space, but the area that is surrounded by buildings due to the new school project is sort of empty, she told the crowd. Former kindergarten teacher Marilyn Erdman "did a ton of work" on getting the courtyard more useful, but then she retired.

"We decided to do something a little bit different - take it from a traditional playground and make it a natural learning environment," said Priebe.

The reason for the decision is because children today don't play outside, or if they do, it is with parents beside them, something that wasn't common when most of the adults in the audience were young.

She provided research that showed a typical child spends 38 hours per week consuming media outside of school. Interviews with children up to age 9 revealed their attitudes toward natural elements, such as rain, wildflowers, birds and trees, showed fear rather than appreciation, caring or enjoyment.

Not only are children missing out on physical activity, they are missing nature-related activities that encourage such things as observation, problem-solving skills, scientific exploration, creativity and a sense of wonder, all of which are a basis for lifelong learning.

A committee came up with the idea to make the playground a more useful space to get classes outside and explore, integrating nature as a more joyful, integral part of daily learning. They hope teachers will check out the space, much as they would a computer lab, for their classes.

Their goal is to balance the trend of increasing technology in schools with open-ended exploration. Not only will the courtyard encourage stronger powers of observation and creativity, but it will also encourage children to take more physical risks, such as jumping.

"The kids love it," said Priebe. "You should hear the screams of joy when we open the door."

There is more to come. A double berm slide will be installed along with a circle learning area, natural materials storage, a bridge, boulders and willow huts, which will be installed this spring and fall.

Another component is water conservation. Every inch of rain produces 17,000 gallons of water flowing into the courtyard, so, with the help of a Soil and Water Conservation District grant, rain gardens and rain barrels will be installed.

"We had all these great ideas and zero money," she said as she thanked the foundation for supporting this idea.

Little Huskers 1k

Foundation board member Steve Harder, sporting a Little Huskers T-shirt, outlined the 2013 foundation project - a fun run for youth.

"As a board we wanted a project that would benefit the community and obviously we wanted to promote health, wanted to do something with kids, something to bring people together, something that fit our vision, our mission, our purpose..." said Harder.

They also wanted something that could continue each year and "would energize people."

So, the foundation came up with the children's run, which is done in conjunction with the Ag Days run for adults. The two groups worked together to hold the run in an area that would highlight one of the community's parks as well as the trail system.

The organizing committee planned for 50 kids, but the event ended up with 172 registered runners. Harder said he was thankful they had pre-registration to prepare for the numbers.

Give to the Max

Kolling gave a brief review of other activities of the foundation, including the Give to the Max challenge with Preston. The two foundations each raised around $10,000, but in the closing minutes Preston beat out Spring Valley by $45.

The loser had to present donated sports equipment, such as baseball bats, from Miken Sports in Caledonia to the other foundation during halftime of a basketball game.

"It's OK to have fun as a community foundation and we do do that," said Kolling. "One year we will have Preston come our way and deliver bats."

Give to the Max is one of three main sources of funds for the foundation. The banquet is the largest source of funds while donations and memorials also contribute to the funds, which has grown to $146,000 in the three years the foundation has been in existence.

Another source is earnings on funds. The non-profit is organized under the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, which manages the money of the foundation. To date, the foundation has earned $16,700 off of earnings.

Kolling pointed out that the SMIF finance committee met last week and it always looks at benchmarks to compare earnings to large universities. This year, the returns beat Harvard and Princeton, she said as the crowd burst into applause.

She also outlined some of the projects of the foundation besides the outdoor learning center and Little Husker. She noted that the first project was the Gateway Academy, a summer learning camp for students that featured science, technology and math.

Funds have also supported downtown Spring Valley revitalization, Music in the Park, a Lego learning project at Kingsland, Wykoff Community Center repair and Spring Valley Historical Society repairs. The Reps family also has a scholarship through the foundation.

A new project for this summer that recently received funds is a family fun night series that will promote health, community engagement and activities.

Support not only comes from the local community, but also several states across the country, from New York to California and as far south as Florida. Many alumni donate, Kolling said, because they want to support the quality of life and education they received growing up here.

Lastly she asked for ideas for new projects or focus for the foundation. The foundation received several ideas from the business expo, but is looking for more input.

"We want to have a shared vision with the community," she said.