FINALIST: Mower County, MN

"We don't just let nice happen, we make it happen" and "Healing hearts one home at a time"

Named a Finalist Because: People “pay it forward” in this place that’s leading the way in “Minnesota nice.”

From the Editors: In the state where “Minnesota nice” was born, Mower County, population: 30,000, stands out for how it responds to kindness with more kindness—even if residents might be too polite to boast about it themselves.

In 2010, Gina Grundmeier, co-owner of T ‘N G Plumbing in Dexter, found herself on the receiving end of nice after her house burned down. “The folks of Mower County gave us our first real taste of what community love was all about,” she told Reader’s Digest. “There were strangers and friends crawling out of the woodwork to offer a hand, a meal, clothing, emotional support.” So she began returning that love the best way a professional remodeler knows how.

Every year her charity, PayItForward, raises community funds and then works with T ’N G and other local contractors to remodel one family’s bathroom in a sprint of a week. The program’s first recipient was paraplegic whose wheelchair never quite fit. For nearly 14 years, he’d scraped his knuckles every time he wheeled through the doorway. Not after Grundmeier’s crew was done.

“PayItForward has made Mower County special, one house at a time,” said Becky Josephson, another recipient.

The pay-it-forward spirit can be seen throughout Austin, the county seat. A Community Pride and Spirit committee’s mission is to inspire acts of kindness. Most businesses in Austin train their employees to be “autism friendly.” And the city has myriad ways of celebrating its cultural diversity—50 languages are spoken in the public school system.

So if you don’t feel welcome in Mower County, you probably just need to socialize more. As newcomer Gabriela B. puts it, “From the time I’ve moved here, I have been treated kindly and been helped by strangers whom I now consider friends.”

— The Editors

Good Graffiti: artist covering unsightly graffiti on a fence with the message “You are Beautiful.” (Credit: Laura Helle)

In 2012, the community of Austin, Minnesota, selected ten goals, one of which being to “create a positive community spirit by fostering service, support, and mentorship programs geared towards improving the quality of life and opportunities for all citizens. Support physical beautification through neighborhood organizations, working in collaboration with existing programs.” To meet this goal, a committee called Community Pride and Spirit was formed, led by Kristen Olson. Since 2012, this group has been planning and doing nice things for others and generally inspiriting, promoting, and celebrating kindness. I think this is pretty unusual and one of the things that make the community great.

A PayItForward check to go toward an adaptive bike. (Credit: Gina Grundmeier)

PayItForward is an organization made up of businesses and individuals in Mower County to “help brighten, enlighten, and rejuvenate hope of families in need.” This is one small dream that has helped so many amazing projects take flight. There isn’t anyone that we don’t try to help — as long as it falls within our funds to do so! All who have been asked to participate or donate never hesitate to help PayItForward!

The Ellie Butts family with Ellie, who has brittle bone disease. PayItForward donated over $2,000 to the family. (Credit: Gina Grundmeier)
Accentra Credit Union presents PayItForward with a check. (Credit: Gina Grundmeier)

Stories About the Community Price and Spirit Committee

The Community Pride and Spirit Committee has:

— Created the Community Home Improvement Program (CHIP), a collaboration with Habitat for Humanity and the Austin Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Eligible homeowners can receive volunteer help such as painting, landscaping or other exterior work, grants, and low-interest loans to complete needed exterior repairs.

CHIP volunteers help repair the gutter on the home of a needy neighbor. (Credit: Laura Helle)

— Created Peer Power Partners, a youth mentoring program that pairs young people with peers who have physical or intellectual disabilities to cultivate friendships and increase understanding. Peer Power Partners started at one school and has since been added to two more.

— Launched a Spread the Spirit campaign to highlight the impact of volunteers and encourage acts of kindness throughout the community.

Pre-school children give valentines they made to seniors at the nursing home. (Credit: Laura Helle)

— Started a Good Graffiti program to cover up unsightly street art with positive messages and images.

— Hosts a free outdoor movie a few times a year to encourage getting to know your neighbors.

— Sponsored appreciation gestures, including pre-school children delivering handmade valentines to seniors in nursing homes, visiting patients in the infusion therapy center of the clinic, and students presenting flowers to school teachers and staff.

Apple Lane children present flowers to teachers and staff in appreciation of what they do. (Credit: Laura Helle)

Stories About PayItForward Inc.

There are probably a hundred articles on the variety of projects, but to summarize a few:

— Held an auction to help raise money in support of a young couple whose baby was born with brittle bone disease.

— Helped an elderly gentleman replace a snowblower that was stolen.

Thorsen Tree Service volunteered for PayItForward to help remove 30 dead trees from an elderly couple’s yard. (Credit: Gina Grundmeier)

— Installed a water heater and repaired plumbing lines for a sober house that was just starting up.

— Performed needed repairs to the local Matchbox Theatre for children.

— Purchased a grill for a recovery house for male teenagers.

— Hosted five major bathroom/home renovations over the past five years for family or couples in need. This past year’s project was nearly $65,000, with the renovation of a bathroom, kitchen, and landscaping, as well as installing new piping, a water heater, softener, furnace, and air conditioner.

The PayItForward crew poses for a photo during a 2014 house renovation project. (Credit: Gina Grundmeier)
Hugs after a house renovation reveal. (Credit: Gina Grundmeier)
Having some fun during a house renovation project. (Credit: Gina Grundmeier)
After one local child was diagnosed with cancer, the community came together to build him an adapted bathroom, and a second bathroom for the rest of the family. (Credit: Gina Grundmeier)

More Information:

— Five Years of PayItForward

— Emotional renovation reveal

— Paying it forward after tragedy