OWATONNA — U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., was wearing all purple on Saturday when she stopped in Owatonna, saying she still wasn’t over the heartbreaking loss against the Seattle Seahawks last weekend.

But Klobuchar was happy to be meeting with good friend Tim Penny, president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, where the two were meeting with members of AmeriCorps Learning Early Achieves Potential Initiative, known as LEAP.

“My mom taught second grade and before that kindergarten for years,” Klobuchar said, explaining her interest in education initiatives. “I have all her old books she bought herself and brought to school.”

Klobuchar said that there is also a national focus on this as President Obama mentioned preschool in his State of the Union Address just last week. The senator was on a mixed-bag tour in southern Minnesota over the weekend. On Saturday morning she was in Albert Lea at an energy co-op and after Owatonna she was heading to Waseca to tour the federal prison.

But for 45 minutes on Saturday, her attention was focused on LEAP.

LEAP members serve in preschool classrooms and focus on the social and emotional development of young children at risk of falling behind through one-on-one assessments.

“Since I know you are a fan of the program,” Penny said to Klobuchar, “I wanted you to meet one of our site managers and talk about their experience.”

At Creative Kids school readiness program in New Ulm, Deb Steinberg works with 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds with several risk factors, such as developmental milestones, chronic illness, poverty or parents’ lack a GED.

“No one gets into creative kids without one risk factor,” Steinberg said. “Some students have eight or nine risk factors.”

Overall, she said the classroom makeup is of kids coming in behind and needing extra support.

With AmeriCorps, the site manager, Betty Uehling, is able to get extra staff on board when their budget only allows them to hire one teacher and one paraprofessional.

“I don’t know what we would do without it,” Uehling said of the LEAP program.

The LEAP Initiative is an AmeriCorps program made possible through the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation — Early Childhood Development partnership with ServeMinnesota and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Penny said the foundation provides initial training, and once a month, everyone meets for a daylong session to talk and get additional resources.

The foundation in currently in the second year of a three year commitment, but they’ve been supporting the LEAP program for 20 years in total. Penny said the $5 million Foundation has 40 percent of its resources devoted to early childhood, so LEAP is an inherent part of that initiative.

Klobuchar asked Penny if there was any way to expand, and mentioned she could see bipartisan support on the issue. Penny said they are looking into the possibilities of additional funding because “the payoff is so huge.” More funding could open the door to hiring more people like Steinberg and David Glantz, of AmeriCorps working in Mankato.

Glantz is from New York and is currently serving at the head start full time. He said he always loved working with kids and his dad was a pediatrician. What’s more is his sisters did AmeriCorps, so when he saw something about LEAP in Minnesota, he decided to apply.

“It’s such a pivotal point. As more research comes out, it’s so important to just develop strictly social and emotional needs. They are overlooked development skills,” Glantz said. “I love what we do. It’s a challenging position absolutely, but to see these changes, to see the development is amazing.”

Penny said the AmeriCorps folks in addition to salary get an education voucher for $5,600 per year for two years or divided over four part-time years.

The foundation also does Reading Corps through Owatonna Public Schools where people serve as literacy tutors. Currently, Wilson Elementary School is looking to hire a tutor where they can earn a living allowance, educational award, federal student loan forbearance, and other benefits, and have the chance to make a real difference in the life of a child.

Last year, Minnesota Reading Corps provided direct services to more than 30,000 children in more than 700 schools across the state.

“It’s a real eye-opener,” Steinberg said. “The earlier you work with children, the better.”

Everyday she works with 40 students at Creative Kids and 17 at Head Start where she works on everything for motor skills and reading to monarch butterfly activities.

“If you go into kindergarten with those issue you’re not going to learn and a lot of classmates are going to be disrupted,” Penny said.

 “You realize the importance of preschool,” Klobuchar said.