November 2022
Members of the MNLEND Community Mentorship Program.

Applications are due November 18 for the MNLEND Community Mentorship Program, a new funded training experience for University of Minnesota Extension educators to develop telehealth services in urban and rural communities. MNLEND (Minnesota Leadership in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities), part of the Institute on Community Integration, is an interdisciplinary leadership training program spanning over 16 disciplines across the University.

Pilot projects completed earlier this year included training for educators on inclusive practices for campus visits by students with disabilities, online resources for providers supporting Somali mothers and their newborn children, and career preparation for neurodiverse high school students.

“These medium-term fellowships support passionate educators with needed resources and networking connections to leverage technology that will help Minnesota families,” said Muna Khalif, program coordinator for the TeleOutreach Center at the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain.

Khalif and Betül Çakir-Dilek are coordinating the program, a partnership between the Institute’s MNLEND program, the TeleOutreach Center, and UMN Extension.

“The program enhances the abilities and potential of the Extension educators who are working with community partners to deliver research-based, cross-disciplinary educational programming,” said Lynne Borden, associate dean for research and engagement at University of Minnesota Extension. “MNLEND helps prepare our next generation of educators to lead in the experiential learning community.”

For one of the pilot projects, Cari Michaels, an educator in the Center for Family Development at Extension, teamed with Lauren Moberg, Infant and Early Childhood Director at the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health, and several community partners to create online and mobile text mental health support for new parents.

“I wanted to focus on people right after they’ve created their families, which can be the most isolating time, particularly following COVID-19,” said Michaels. The team of mental health professionals, advocates, parents, and education students helped create The 40-Day Project : Postpartum Support During the First 40 Days.

In the Somali culture, family and friends surround new mothers with extensive care during the first 40 days of a child’s life. For families now living in the United States, those extended networks aren’t always available, leaving many new mothers feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable to depression, Michaels said.

Michaels and Moberg collaborated with Maryan Ali, Ifrah Nur, Sahro Abdullahi, and Mollie Kohler on the project.

The group also has created a text-message system that allows new parents to opt in to daily messages of mental health support and self-care tips.

“We really designed this with Somali parents in mind, but hope to expand it in the future,” Michaels said. For another dyad, Jenny Cable and Courtney Hess developed Creating college & career pathways for youth with disabilities, which are trainings designed to assist campus personnel to recruit high school students with disabilities to campus and learn the best ways to support them once they arrive, said Jessica Simacek, director of the TeleOutreach Center.

A desire to help neurodiverse students guided Cassandra Silveira, an Extension educator in the Center for Family Development, to partner with Joy Kieffer, executive director for Mind Shift, a nonprofit organization that connects employers with individuals with autism. They worked on a project to improve future employment options in technology-focused careers for neurodiverse individuals who are preparing to transition from high school to adult life.

“The pilot projects exceeded our expectations, and we’re excited to work with other dyads in the future,” Simacek said. “Extension educators know Minnesota communities so well and have people living in those communities, so they are bringing a lot of expertise to the table in this partnership. For ICI, engagement isn’t a brief moment in time. It is about developing long-term relationships. So, we thought working together would be a great way to engage people across the state who urgently want to improve access to mental health or behavioral health services for children, youth, and young adults.”

Contact Khalif at 612-250-7864 or Çakir-Dilek at with questions.