MARSHALL - Come next spring, Ruth Ascher finally might have some time to get those recipes sorted.
Ascher, the executive director of the United Way of Southwest Minnesota, is retiring after nearly 10 years of leading the local United Way organization and is looking forward to spending some time doing the things she just never was able to get around to doing.
"I have stacks and stacks of things I keep thinking, 'Oh, I'll get around to doing that sometime,'" Ascher said. "I'm interested in doing a little bit of writing; this job has taught me to learn more about writing. There are just a lot of things that have gotten pushed back that I haven't gotten to do. I want to organize my recipes because I love cooking. Little things like that."
Ascher, whose retirement is effective in mid-March, believes the United Way of Southwest Minnesota has grown into an organization that is about more than just raising money. To her, the key is how the United Way has used that money during the last decade.
"We're really about putting money to work and the results that happen after that," she said. "That's a philosophy I think our board has really embraced - we really focus on what's going on with the money."
During Ascher's tenure with the United Way, the local group underwent a name change that better reflected its service coverage, going from the United Way of Lyon County to the current name, the United Way of Southwest Minnesota. She said that better identifies the reach of the organization, which actually serves people in five counties - Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, (western) Redwood and Yellow Medicine.
"I'm really pleased we now have more of a regional approach," she said. "That was something that was very apparent when I first came. We found that we were providing services to people in a multi-county area. Our name was United Way of Lyon County, but that wasn't the reality, so we needed to define our service area."
Among the services the United Way of Southwest Minnesota provides, Ascher takes the most pride in its involvement with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program, which provides books to children at no cost. That program, she said, addressed a major problem the group focused in on in 2005: school readiness. Ascher said the United Way of Southwest Minnesota has distributed about 200,000 books to families since 2005, with more than 23,000 people enrolled in the program at any one time.
"I brought that to the board and they immediately put a task force together in August of 2005 and by September we were set to sponsor the program," she said. "Since then it's just gone gangbusters. I think that's important, because when parents read to their kids they're building school readiness."
The local United Way, Ascher said, has changed throughout the years and needs to continue to be smart about money distribution and work more collaboratively and avoid duplication of services. She said the organization takes on issues with a proactive approach instead of just doling out money.
"We try to do things early to turn the tide before the point of desperation hits - in other words, teach someone to fish rather than just give them a fish," she said. "Of the mix of grants our organization has given out I would say it's more heavily tilted toward proactive, prevention-type services rather than just the hand-out type of thing. You've got to have a mix of both."
The plan for Ascher's replacement is to get someone hired while she's still on board to smooth the transition.