Business Forum: A good head and a good heart offer a great start

  • Article by: CHUCK SLOCUM
  • Updated: August 31, 2014 - 2:00 PM

The General Mills retiree keeps busy working with Caring for Kids Initiative.

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Fred Hegele, a former General Mills executive, now spends time helping at-risk kids through the Caring for Kids Initiative.

Photo: Courtesy of Fred Hegele,

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When I first met Fred Hegele a decade ago he was the senior regulatory officer at General Mills. Fred’s business background gave him insight into the shaping of Minnesota’s future workforce, a great concern to the majority of Minnesota employers.

At that time, Fred was planning a retirement with purpose, he told me, one that would give back to his community and help very young kids — future workers — get a flying start in life.

When I learned all of that, I recruited Fred to a group we were forming that became Minnesota Business for Early Learning or MnBEL.

Fred is not unique in having bold visions of moving from success to significance with his life. What makes his story compelling — and that of his early pilot Kids Care Connection that merged in 2006 with Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners forming the highly regarded Caring for Kids Initiative (CfKI) — is that every year since 2006 the plan has been executed effectively with a laser-focus on young children in the Twin Cities western suburbs who most need some help to get going.

Over time, the public-private CfKI has become a collaborative scholarship program for low-income families, most particularly ensuring access to quality early learning opportunities for eligible children before their entry into kindergarten.

Included in the program is the careful identification of youngsters who are most at-risk; comprehensive support for parents and families; engagement of faith communities; public and private social service agencies; providers of top quality early learning opportunities, and the Wayzata Public Schools. Also part of the program are both qualitative and quantitative measurements of results and, of course, genuine involvement of volunteers like himself to be engaged with their time, talents and financial support.

Progress report

I recently checked in with vibrant Fred, looking younger than his years, at an event aimed at providing supporters an accounting of CfKI’s key objectives in 2013. Not unlike a company annual meeting with shareholders, we heard about state-of-the-art research measuring kids’ performance in the program alongside the mainstream ones.

The keynoter was former Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, now engaged as a “can-do agent” at the developing “Generation Next.” The mayor spoke to a powerful coalition of civic, business and education leaders, aiming to close the achievement and opportunity gaps for students of color in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Rybak said his group identifies the children at the earliest ages so as to intervene in unique learning challenges; strengthening the home child care standards, and focusing on reading by third grade as well as promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Melinda, a young mother of three, was a special guest, movingly recounting her life experiences through a series of abusive relationships and homeless shelters until she connected with CfKI. The relationship, she said, helped to stabilize her employment, transportation, food and housing needs. She and her children earned top-quality early education scholarships. They are each doing just fine when compared to the general population.

Scholarships make difference

Despite its broad family-centered mission, CfKI is a lean operation where each scholarship kid costs about $40 per day or $10,000 per year to serve, well below the cost of other top-quality early childhood education programs. In 2013, there were 162 kids carefully screened and awarded scholarships — all were deemed at age 5 as ready to succeed in kindergarten — and 245 of their parents were actively involved in one or more supportive programs.

The bad news that challenges Fred and the others, however, is there are 500 early learners in the western Hennepin County service area who would benefit from the program, including an active waiting list of 72. These kids, with their parents, are raring to go right now but current funding is insufficient. Numerous business foundations and hundreds of private individuals now contributing up to $10,000 a year are being asked to grow in numbers and dig deeper into their pocketbooks.

Fred and dozens of others involved in CfKI want to do the right things now so that too-often-forgotten young people will become successful workers, reliable taxpayers and upstanding citizens.

Fred and his colleagues at CfKI have been living examples of what Nelson Mandela frequently observed:

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

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  • About the authorChuck Slocum is president of the Williston Group, a management consulting firm. His e-mail is Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com.

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