As seen in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on 8/16/15

In May 2011 a tornado struck north Minneapolis, wreaking havoc on many homes and lives. It also prompted a 7-year-old Eagan girl to consider how she could help affected kids and make a difference.

Starting when she was 5 years old, Mandi Simon chose to make donations on her birthday, rather than to receive gifts. On the cusp of her August 2011 birthday, she was troubled by thoughts that many kids in the storm-ravaged community miles from her home wouldn’t be able to celebrate their own birthdays. Believing every child deserves a chance to celebrate his or her day, she wanted to do something to make that happen.

Dina Simon was washing the dinner dishes when Mandi informed her she wanted to start a company to help kids in need. It took a minute for her daughter’s words to break through her reverie, but once she realized that Mandi had both an idea and a plan, Dina shifted her attention. In what Dina describes as a pinnacle moment, she learned that Mandi had a fundraising idea and a revenue projection. She listened intently to her daughter and decided to take a leap of faith.

Drawing upon Dina’s expertise and connections in the staffing industry, the two assembled a team of professionals to advise them. They formed a non-profit named “Simon Says Give,” and Mandi assembled a kids’ advisory board comprised of young people who share her passion for helping others.

The nonprofit’s first initiative, Birthdays in a Box, was created to bring Mandi’s birthday vision to fruition. Partnering with organizations like the YMCA, the nonprofit provides the essentials for a birthday party and a gift the child will treasure. Since 2011 Simon Says Give has brought smiles to hundreds of kids who wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed a birthday celebration.

Birthdays last just a day, though. The Simons recognized many kids have a more enduring need. Knowing how costly school supplies can be and that some families are stretched to purchase backpacks and supplies, Simon Says Give started “High Five for Supplies.”

The advisory board determined which school supplies should be provided for each grade and identified the geographical area in which they will offer the backpacks (to families within two hours of the Twin Cities). The nonprofit reached out to corporations and individuals and received a lot of support.

Last weekend nearly 600 volunteers gathered at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights to fill 4,400 backpacks with donated supplies. The goal is to fill 10,000 backpacks this year. With additional donations from corporate sponsors, Dina expects to accomplish the goal by mid-September.

About 100 of the volunteers were recipients of Simon Says Give birthday party and backpack initiatives. They were encouraged, but not required, to help out. A range of corporate sponsors not only donated goods but also supplied volunteers. Encouraged by their coach, many St. Thomas athletes pitched in as well. While the four days spent packaging supplies in August is the most intensive, anywhere from 20 to 40 young volunteers work year round to help with mailing, social media and more.

Carleen Rhodes spent years working in the nonprofit world, most recently as president of Minnesota Philanthropy Partners. She, her daughter Alissa Clark, and her two granddaughters went to St. Thomas to help out. The mix of adults and children volunteering together, all stimulated by the vision of a 7-year-old girl, impressed the former executive. “If more often we turned to children for ideas, their energy and creativity could help to make our communities stronger,” Rhodes says, noting adults often stifle or try to direct kids.

She cites the Montessori philosophy that kids have within themselves the creativity and vision to accomplish great things. That’s what she observed in action last Saturday. Rhodes unwittingly identified another initiative, Kids in Action, which empowers young visionaries to translate ideas into action. “We are growing the next generation of leaders by providing the opportunity for children to develop essential life skills and a passion for giving back,” Dina Simon says.

Mandi Simon’s interest in helping others didn’t develop in a vacuum. Dina Simon has made a career of developing people, from talent recruitment to leadership development. As a businesswoman, speaker, and author of “Make Unstoppable Simple: Creative Problem Solving in Life and Leadership,” Dina demonstrates tenacity and drive. The leadership principles she wrote about for executives in her new book can apply to the young people the nonprofit is shepherding along.

When the school year begins shortly Mandi will be a seventh grader at the Convent of the Visitation in Mendota Heights. Her philanthropic nature is in sync with her school’s motto, “Not for school but for life.” And the organization’s strategic plan suggests it is not just a young girl’s whim.

Simon Says Give has a goal of impacting 2 million kids per year by 2022, when Mandi will be a college sophomore. To reach the goal they plan to expand beyond the Twin Cities. They’re on their way, with a newly formed a chapter in Sioux Falls, S.D. Having branded themselves “unstoppable” it’s difficult to imagine that the Simons won’t succeed.