She's only weeks into her role as program director for the Ann Bancroft Foundation (ABF), but Katie Lauer has been preparing for the job much of her life. Her dad works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Her mom studied biology and worked at YMCA camps. Summer vacations in the Lauer household meant long car trips for Katie and her two brothers to national parks in the family's dependable 2000 Dodge Caravan, which only "died" last year. A lover of the outdoors, Lauer was surprised to learn that not every teenager wanted to go fishing and camping. After graduating from St. Olaf College, where she played basketball and studied art and media, Lauer, 27, headed to Carleton College in Northfield, where she was interim director for summer academic programs and assistant women's basketball coach. She moves to ABF at an exciting time for the nonprofit founded 21 years ago by polar explorer Bancroft, who still sits on the board. Lauer shares thoughts about increasing outreach and how small grants help girls dream big.

Q: The Ann Bancroft Foundation has given out more than $1.6 million in 20 years to more than 4,400 Minnesota girls and young women. Yet the foundation remains under the radar. Tell us a bit about Ann Bancroft's vision.

A: Ann's mission is all about encouraging young women to pursue their dreams. An educator and explorer, she sees these grants as investments in girls that will have immediate as well as lasting impact.

Q: I was surprised to learn that outdoor pursuits — versions of the challenges that made Bancroft a household name for many of us — are but a small part of her grant-giving venture. The grants are incredibly diverse: cooking, STEM, language study, horsemanship, dance.

A: They are diverse. But every grant shares the goal of helping girls push themselves, recognize their own abilities and build confidence. The "Let Me Play" grant is for grades K-12 and it funds sports-related activities. The "Dare To Dream" grant is for grades 4 to 12. It funds art, leadership, educational and wilderness experiences.

Q: Speaking of wilderness, you know a little bit about that.

A: My family has always been very connected to the outdoors. We still attend family Y camp in northern Wisconsin. A lot of my friends' vacations are not focused on the outdoors but, for me, it always seemed normal. My dad said, 'Invite your friends. I'll teach them how to fish.' "

Q: Grants through the Ann Bancroft Foundation ( are for up to $500, with the average being $475. Is that enough for a girl to chase her dream?

A: For most girls, $500 takes care of it. One 16-year-old girl, for example, used her money to visit historically black colleges and universities. Another participated in a three-week summer writing program. A third wanted a nonreligious mission trip to Thailand to learn more about elephant conservation. Obviously, the grant wasn't enough to cover the entire cost. But she said that once we said yes to the $500, that gave her the confidence to advocate for herself and find the rest of the money. She said later that the experience "changed me forever." She's developed an interest in conservation of all species because of her ABF experience.

Q: Three percent of your grantees were in kindergarten in 2017. What's on the minds of these young dreamers?

A: We had nine applications from kindergartners. Six did dance; the other three were for a basketball clinic. Some say this is too young to apply, but we think maybe this will spark something in each girl for the rest of her life.

Q: One aspect of the application that seems unusual is its mentorship requirement. Applicants must have an adult mentor who is not an immediate family member. This mentor not only supports the girl's dream project, but also must complete his or her own application to go along with the young woman's. Why is that important?

A: As a girl, Ann was not academically successful. It turns out that she had an undiagnosed learning disability. But a coach saw talent in her, saw value in her that others didn't. Since then, Ann has believed in the importance of mentorship. She believes that having someone outside of your immediate family who genuinely cares about you, who makes sure you're not alone in dealing with challenges, who makes you feel like you matter, can have a powerful effect. That person can be a role model, coach, counselor or emotional sounding board. Research confirms the power this mentor has to inspire, whether the situation is personal, academic or professional.

Q: You've said that one of your first goals is to get the word out about the Ann Bancroft Foundation to other parts of the state. Has that been a challenge thus far?

A: Just under 90 percent of our grantees come from the Twin Cities metro area. The good news is that at least 60 percent identified as being ethnically diverse. This has been true for the past four years. But we want to make sure we are operating at a statewide level. We have a lot of room to grow: Just 1 percent of our grantees live in northwestern Minnesota, 3 percent in the northeast part of the state, 2 percent in the southern regions, and 5 percent in central Minnesota.

Q: Sounds like travel around the state is in your future.

A: I recently attended a two-day women's leadership conference, hosted by the YWCA of Mankato. I had an information booth and talked to 40 or 50 women about the Ann Bancroft Foundation. At the beginning, only one or two said they'd heard of us. By the end of the conference, women were telling me, "I'm going to share this with my neighbors."

Q: I'll bet you love to hear that.

A: I'm very honored to be working with this organization. I hope that, by giving girls grants, we will send them into the world feeling empowered.