People in your neighborhood: Jim Kielsmeier

By Gwen Willems

Our neighbor of nearly 40 years, Jim Kielsmeier, is a friendly and unassuming man who with his pastor wife, Deb, raised three daughters in Falcon Heights.

Jim is a leader who has had a major impact on the international nonmilitary service and service-learning movement. As he told me, “Don’t underestimate the capability of young people to learn and contribute.”

After studying zoology and ROTC at Wheaton College, Jim’s involvement in service work began when he was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War and served as a community relations officer working with schools.

To lessen the terrible tension between Korean civilians and American soldiers, Jim proposed a model for soldiers to tutor Korean children in English.

His immediate supervisors nixed the idea, but that didn’t stop Jim. He went over their heads to the commanding general, who okayed the idea. Soldiers, teachers, Peace Corps trainers and the Korean press also supported it. The program was ultimately so successful that Jim was awarded the highest noncombat medal a soldier can receive.

Jim continued college at American University in Washington, D.C., earning a master’s degree in East Asian Studies. He worked summers with Outward Bound in Colorado, taught and coached football at D.C.’s St. Albans prep school and set up a service program there, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary.

While studying for a doctorate at the University of Colorado, Jim volunteered in public schools to reduce racial tension through the service of African American students. Jim’s experience in Korean and Denver schools were the basis for his. doctorate in service-learning.

Two scholars at the University of Minnesota met Jim and invited him to come here in 1982, guaranteeing him two months of salary and an adjunct professor position at the U of M Center for Youth Development. The rest is history.

The next year, Jim set up the nonprofit National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), and formed and staffed a state commission on community service headed by then Minnesota state Rep. Kathleen Blatz and Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser.

Things started slowly but sped up with the involvement of Gov. Rudy Perpich, who was impressed that Duluth high school students involved in service were twice as likely as their fellow students to want to become teachers.

Perpich proposed the first annual National Service-Learning Conference in Minnesota in 1989 and gave opening remarks.

As an assistant professor at the U of M, Jim also founded the Center for Experiential Education and Service-Learning. Jim credits former U.S. Senators Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) for boosting the movement by writing legislation to create funding for national and community service.

Although he retired from the NYLC in 2011, Jim remains extremely active in the field, now taking it across borders, organizing service-learning in the peaceful Somali region of eastern Ethiopia to reduce food insecurity.

“Food insecurity is not just about the absence of food,” he told me, “but the absence of capability of the local community to produce it.” Jim assembled a diverse team of Americans to do this work under the umbrella of the University Partnership Initiative (UPI).

Earlier this year, the UPI team made a preliminary site visit to Ethiopia, hosted by the president of Jigjiga University. One of the team’s premises is that the capacity of young people to contribute and to learn while they contribute can be applied to food production.

The UPI team also has ideas for the project beyond agriculture and livestock management, including solar and wind-based energy, related conservation methods and a tech expo at Jigjiga University to share information on energy options. 

Gwen Willems lives in Falcon Heights and is a Bugle freelance writer.

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