Vital Aging Network

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Evolve Stories

"In all of us there are undiscovered
gifts, untested strengths."

—John Gardner in On Leadership

Evolve: Re-igniting Self & Community combining learning with concrete action. A civic leadership project gives participants an opportunity to test what they are learning about leadership, practice new skills, and possibly find some new strengths in themselves.

Take a look at what people have done in the past:

Download a list of 2014-2015 Evolve Projects (Word format) (PDF format)

Download a list of 2013-2014 Evolve Projects (Word format)  (PDF format)

Download a list of 2012-2013 Evolve Projects (Word format)  (PDF format)

Download a list of 2011-2012 Evolve Projects (Word format) (PDF format)

2010-2011 Projects
Download a list of 2010-2011 Evolve Projects (Word format) (PDF format)

2009-2010 Projects
Download a list of 2009-2010 Evolve Projects (Word format) (PDF format)

2008–2009 Projects
Download a list of 2008-2009 Evolve Projects (Word format) (PDF format)


The following are short descriptions of some past participant's projects:

  • Joann Ellis, a teacher and administrator in St. Paul, was concerned about isolation in older adults as more elect to age in their homes. She designed a program that paired block nurses and Master Gardeners to create container gardens for older people in one St. Paul neighborhood. As a result, the elderly person got additional social contact with the volunteer gardener and additional purpose in watering, fertilizing, and tending the plants. Fresh tomatoes, peppers, radishes, and cucumbers are an added bonus. This spring Joann has been asked to expand the program to include additional neighborhoods.
  • Cathy DeSutter helped the Lakeville Resource Center, a local food shelf, secure storage units for fresh and perishable food. The food shelf serves over 200 families in Lakeville, Apple Valley, Rosemount, Farmington, and Burnsville. “I took the Evolve class because I was ready for my next big step,” says Cathy. “I wanted to zero in on a passion that would keep me active in my community.” The Evolve program helped her achieve that goal. By organizing a collaboration among the Lakeville Resource Center, Eagan Resource Center, Lakeville’s businesses, and Lakeville’s civic organizations, Cathy was able to obtain the resources needed to achieve her goal. A $1,100 grant from the Thrivent Foundation and cash contributions from the community’s banks, businesses, and nonprofits got the fundraising off the ground. Cathy’s past employer, Don Stevens, Inc., agreed to sell the equipment at a discount, and Eagan’s Hardware Hank agreed to install it at no cost.
  • Dick Kavaney, a retired civil engineer and attorney, worked with the state of Minnesota to help rewrite state building codes to include universal design. Dick took the leadership course after his wife told him, “you’re bored and you’re becoming boring”. Since the class, Dick has remained involved as a pro-bono consultant for the state Department of Human Services and has become actively involved in several Vital Aging Network projects. He says that he has found purpose in his life again since completing the class. 
  • Mary Ellen Kennedy, a retired schoolteacher, wanted to help children who had a parent in prison to help break the cycle of violence.  She began working with Big Brothers Big Sisters to further develop their program for mentoring children with incarcerated parents. She has become a frequent speaker to encourage others to participant in the leadership program and realize the kinds of benefits she has received from the program



This section includes the following pages:

  • Evolve in Bloomington Challenges Participants to Deeper Thinking - I was one of ten residents of Bloomington with varying backgrounds and professions who came together for eight monthly sessions and learned how to become leaders and project developers for our communities.
  • Kris Gjerde: Exercise Program Lessens Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease - As a person with Parkinson's, Kris had searched for a high level PWR!,, class in the East Metro area without success. As she considered project ideas for the Evolve class, she kept coming back to her desire to have PWR! classes accessible to St. Paul residents. Unable to let go of her passion, Kris decided to make an ongoing commitment to PWR!
  • Jan Fillmore: Concerts in the Park - Jan was the chair of a small committee charged with planning the Salo Park Summer Concert Series. Jan had ambitious goals: Increase the ethnic diversity of the music, increase publicity, increase attendance, and improve overall satisfaction with the concerts.
  • Judy Harvey: Inspiring Kids to Excel - "I am so excited about being a part of something that makes such a significant impact on kids," says Judy Harvey, a retired IT professional and 2014 Evolve grad.
  • Kwangja Kwon: Seeking Fresh Perspectives - Kwangja loves her work, but a few years ago she felt she needed a fresh perspective. So she signed up for Evolve, the Vital Aging Network's eight-month leadership program.
  • Striking a Creative Spark - With age and experience comes wisdom . . . and plenty of grist for good advice.
  • Elsa Batica: Making Filipino Students' Voices Heard - Evolve helped her Elsa Batica launch a program that helps teenagers in her home town of Abuyog, Leyte in the Philippines imagine that they can have a say in what happens in their lives and in their community.
  • Evolve Preps for Encore Career - After 30+ years working in sales and marketing, Mary Peterson is ready for an encore career. Her desire for a change led her to VAN's Evolve: Re-igniting Self & Community program.
  • Miriam Carter: Helping Hmong Elders Connect in Their Communities - Miriam's travels have increased her knowledge about cross-cultural connections. Now, she is applying that knowledge in the Hmong community in her Hamline Midway neighborhood in St. Paul. Miriam formed her approach to helping relieve isolation of Hmong elders in the Evolve: Re-igniting Self & Community course.
  • Bringing Fresh Foods to Over 200 Families - Cathy DeSutter's evolve project helped the Lakeville Resource Center, a local food shelf, secure storage units for fresh and perishable food. The food shelf serves over 200 families in Lakeville, Apple Valley, Rosemount, Farmington, and Burnsville.
  • Helping Children of Prisoners Thrive - In her ALVA project, Mary Ellen Kennedy developed activities that help adults mentor children of prisoners.
  • Renee Ehlenz: Bringing Walking and Biking Paths to Central Minnesota - Renee Ehlenz recognized that Sauk Rapids and Benton County in central Minnesota lacked the sidewalks, paths, and bikeways needed to encourage physical activity. She took that issue on as her project in the Evolve program at St. Cloud Technical & Community College.
  • A Guide for Life Planning - Peggy Gaard and Gail Skoglund believe that people can make meaningful and purposeful choices throughout their lives. They created Proactive to Stay Active: A Blueprint for Aging by Choice, to make it easy.
  • Patio Gardens for the Elderly - For her Evolve project, Joann developed a partnership with Ramsey County Master Gardeners. The project will help seniors in her block nurse program grow vegetables in their own patio gardens.
  • Vital Aging in Fosston, Minnesota - Bonnie Stewart worries about the future of her rural community of Fosston, Minnesota, with its population of 1,575. She created a high-level task force in Fosston to assess the community‚Äôs ability to help people live healthy, fulfilling lives as they age.
  • Slow, Smooth, and Soft: Tai Chi for Everyone - The support that Steve found in the Evolve class led him to design his own Tai Chi class especially for the needs of people 50 and over.
  • A Small Change in Community; a Big Change in Me - My Evolve project was straightforward. I wanted to get a number of older women together with high school girls to collaborate on a project.


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