From modest roots
Semcac was founded in 1966 under the federal Economic Opportunity Act, which authorized the development of local community action agencies as part of the War on Poverty. Today, community action agencies like Semcac cover 96 percent of the nation’s counties.
Initially, the agency was known as the Southeastern Minnesota Citizens Action Council, which got shortened to Semcac Inc. in 1977 and just plain Semcac in 1995.
In the beginning, the action council served Winona, Fillmore, and Houston counties, with a staff of three people — director Halvor Lacher, an assistant director, and a stenographer. They operated out of the Tew Memorial Library in Rushford.
The council got its first federal grant in 1966, composed of $30,000 for operations and $14,000 for a summer youth program.
Programs grew over time as well. Initially, Semcac programs focused on youth and older adults, but the agency steadily added other services including rural health outreach, employment services, community development, housing and more.
Wide services today
In 2015, Semcac assisted more than 26,000 individuals across its programs. The agency primarily serves seven counties in southeast Minnesota, with limited services in four more counties.
Stenberg said Semcac adds services based on measurable gaps, after talking with community, clients and partner agencies.
“We do a community needs assessment every three years,” Stenberg said. “We’re very purposeful to say, ‘What are the needs?’”
Most recently, the agency has added nine new senior dining sites in Olmsted County, services for birth to age three in Head Start, electronic health records at its clinic in Winona, and expansion and rebranding of its public transportation, now called Rolling Hills Transit.
Stenberg said Semcac’s wide range of programs wouldn’t be possible without its strong volunteer network. Last year, some 1,800 volunteers assisted the agency.
Roots and relevance: Semcac celebrates 50 years of community action | Local | winonadailynews.com
One of those was Mary Carlson, who’s been volunteering for Semcac for more than 18 years. She assists mainly at the administrative office in Rushford, helping with senior programs, Head Start, and other jobs as needed.
Carlson started volunteering for Semcac when she moved to Rushford. Her husband had passed away, and she was looking for ways to spend her time. She never looked back.
“I just enjoy it — I’m not working, and it gives me something to do every day. And the people are wonderful,” she said.
Stenberg said attitudes like Carlson’s are pretty standard for Semcac volunteers.
“People do it because they feel that that’s important,” he said. “It’s bigger than one person — it’s a community, and people know they are giving back.”
Semcac’s programs have changed over its five decades, responding to changing needs, demographic shifts, and natural disasters like the flood of 2007.
The flood left at least half of Rushford underwater, including Semcac’s main office, 16 rental units and several homes, and its senior dining site.
Not wasting time, the agency temporarily moved its main administrative office to Winona, where it continued to help with flood recovery efforts in Rushford, managing more than $10,000 in flood relief from FEMA and other agencies.
Community action agencies are flexible, adapting to changing needs alongside their partners, Stenberg said. And Semcac’s work during the flood only underscores that flexibility.
“We were there, part of the community,” Stenberg said. “We were still able to complete the mission. That’s where the network really comes together.”
Given the valuable community services Semcac provides, and its role in leveraging federal, state, local, and private funding, Stenberg said Semcac will continue to be relevant for years to come.
“I don’t think that county governments can do it all by themselves,” he said. “We’ll still have a vital role to play.”
Looking ahead, Stenberg said transportation, especially for older adults, will become more important given an aging population in the mostly rural area Semcac serves.
Semcac already has one of the largest volunteer driver programs in the state, with more than 16,000 rides given in 2015.
But needs will only increase, and Stenberg said both the volunteer driver program and Rolling Hills Transit will likely expand, especially with Rochester’s Destination Medical Center on the horizon.