ESport gaming league discussed for local youth

By Barbie Porter


From St. Cloud, Minn., to the Canadian border, there is only one autistic learning center on the Minnesota map, and it is located in Perham.

Serving a 60-mile radius around the industrial and commercial hub, Empowering Kids Perham, in ways, had a tragic start. Kim Nelson lost her 23-year-old son Matthew in a vehicle accident in 2004. The consumption of pain brought on by knowing she would never again hug her strong-willed, comedic, kind and honest son left Kim emotionally paralyzed. 

“Sometimes I hear the word grief and I wonder, how can so much sadness be put into just five letters?” she asked. “I checked out of reality and placed myself on auto-pilot for a long time.”

The moment that shifted her out of neutral came as she stood outside of the delivery room where her first grandson Levi Matthew was making his debut on the earthly plane. Little did she know, that little bundle of joy would be the inspiration for providing other families who may have felt lost a road map.

The journey to creating Empowering Kids Perham began when Levi became a toddler. There were unique traits his grandmother noticed, like his penchant for lining up cars or difficulty moving from one activity to another. While unique, Kim was caught off guard when she brought him to the doctor with a suspected ear ache.

Levi began speaking gibberish while they waited for the doctor to arrive. Kim heard the doctor’s footsteps near the door, but he didn’t open it. After quite some time, the doctor entered and said he believed Levi was a special needs child. 

Photo by Barbie Porter
Empowering Kids Perham came to be when a mother and grandmother of autistic children began dreaming of ways to better serve the special needs community. Pictured are (from left) Christi Stoll, the general manager, Tiffany Tobkin, director, and founders Kim and Kenny (not pictured) Nelson.

Eventually, Levi was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Autism has a wide range of learning challenges. Some have marginal deficits with social skills while others may be non-verbal. Sometimes, those with autism also have a superior skill set, such as exceptional memorization or the ability to read very early in life. 

Regardless of ability or potential, Kim was told to find her grandson all the help he needed. She was told that was key to providing Levi with the best opportunity to live a full life. When she looked, she found there were little to no services available locally. She met other parents with autistic kids and found they also lacked adequate services.

Christi Stoll, who is the general manager of Empowering Kids Perham and a mother of an autistic child, noted finding professionals trained for autistic services is not an easy task. With an understanding of how difficult the road ahead would be without an expert in the field steering the ship, some may have given up hope. But not Kim. She sent Christi an email and asked, if she could have one thing for her child, what would it be?

“I replied back that I would love a one stop shop for those with autism that covers all ages,” Christi said. “I wanted a place that would help all autistic people discover their talent and help them find a career and make friends.”

At the time, Christi was on the advisory committee for the Boys and Girls Club in Perham. When the idea for an autistic learning center was shared, the Club embraced it. A space in their facility was provided to get started. 

Fundraising events were held, grants were applied for, staff was hired and rooms outfitted. Empowering Kids Perham also earned their non-profit status in 2017. 

They now offer autistic kids the opportunity for one-on-one tutoring with a professional, out patient mental health, social skills learning opportunities through fun events, which may include kids without learning challenges, and more. 

There were 12 kids enrolled when Empowering Kids Perham opened. Now, there are about 40 children enrolled. The  quick growth didn’t come as a shock to those working with Empowering Kids Perham. Research indicated there are almost 500 kids with an autism educational diagnosis in 60 miles of Perham. 

The quick growth of the program also means more space was needed. A home was found at the former high school building. The current 1,000-square-foot space is increasing to about 15,000-square feet. The opportunity to purchase and renovate the building came about after the group obtained a $6 million grant that was split between Empowering Kids Perham and the Boys and Girls Club. 

While all of the learning equipment and tools they have purchased will be transferred to the new space, other educational tools are being brought in as well as new services such as mental health, preschool, employment classes and more. 

“The fact Empower Kids Perham exists is a unique and wonderful gift to have. If it weren’t for Kim’s vision and her family’s generosity this may not exist. Every day I am so thankful I get to get up and help people by providing the services they need

Director Tiffany Tobkin

Christi said a major fundraising effort is underway, and they are about $330,000 shy of their goal to fully outfit the learning center. 

Donations (and Central Market We Care receipts) can be sent to Empowering Kids Perham, PO Box 452, Perham, MN 56573.

Gaming league to 

start in Perham

The newest addition to the Empowering Kids Perham roster is an ESports gaming league that will be offered to all students in their district, regardless of learning ability. 

The hope is to partner with the school district, as gaming leagues are popular and help develop skills, such as, teamwork, communication, reaching goals  and creative problem solving. Most recently, the Federal Aviation Administration recently put out an open call for gamers to apply for control tower jobs. 

Currently, a survey about ESports is being conducted. The survey can be found on the Empowering Kids Perham Facebook page.