A Story of Transformation

Heartland Foundation’s emPowerU Campus is a place where individuals of all ages feel inspired to think creatively and discover new approaches to address challenges and opportunities in their school, work place, community, or the region.

Since opening the doors more than 10 years ago, more than 20,000 youth and countless other business and community groups have experienced the innovative atmosphere of emPowerU, a culmination of Heartland Foundation’s vision to build healthy and thriving communities in collaboration with hundreds of individuals and groups in our region.

In the mid-1990s, the first Community Transformation Forum attracted over 100 people from different walks of life to think about their community’s future and how to plan for it. A number of communities participated in this collaborative planning process, culminating in the first Regional Planning Forum held at Conception Abbey. During the Community and Regional Forums, our youth participants made a great impact, and it was clear they had a great deal to contribute to our community’s and region’s future. In the first region-wide youth survey, we learned about their interest in community decision-making and other issues that affect their lives.

In 2000, results of the youth survey led to Heartland Foundation hiring a national educational consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study to determine the region’s interest in forming a one-of-a-kind experiential learning center where students ages 12–15 learn about their role – now and in the future – in building healthier lives and communities (now known as emPowerU challenge-based learning immersions). Heartland Foundation kicked off A Campaign for Community Change and Innovation, a $10,000,000 campaign to fund the creation of emPowerU as well as several healthy communities initiatives and an operating endowment.

Meanwhile, a test lab site for emPowerU opened to pilot the on-site simulation and classroom curriculum, with over 1,000 students participating in this trial experience. A warehouse in the federally-designated Brownfields district of downtown St. Joseph was selected as the future site of emPowerU. In 2006, renovation began on the warehouse facility, now known as the emPowerU Campus, a unique facility to house a myriad of Foundation-sponsored programs and community meeting spaces. This deteriorating industrial 23,000-square-foot property required extensive environmental and structural engineering before and during construction. Heartland Foundation officially dedicated emPowerU on August 29, 2007.


The Heartland Foundation office portion of emPowerU was completed and occupied in 2008. Upon completion, in addition to housing the emPowerU immersion, this research and solutions center is available for rent and can be utilized for a variety of purposes. In 2013, Heartland Foundation accepted the EPA Region 7 Phoenix Award on behalf of the contributions of over 1,500 visionary public/private donor investors who made it possible to redevelop and transform an old warehouse facility into emPowerU.

This facility embodies empowerment. It was specifically designed to generate a strong sense of self in the region’s youth. It is also meant to encourage people from all walks of life to feel the significant difference they can make in our lives as well as our communities. Over the past 10 plus years, we believe emPowerU has lived up to its name, benefitting students (our region’s future), the growth of Heartland Foundation collaborative programs and initiatives, and the region as a whole.

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