Citizen-led Brandon Wellness group organizes to fund center for community

By: Jill Meier, Journal editor, Brandon Valley Journal

The mission of an all-volunteer group, Brandon Wellness, is to build and invest in the health and wellness of the Brandon community.

“Brandon Wellness is basically a citizen-led dream of building a better life for everyone in the community,” said John Semchenko, a Brandon Wellness board member.

 “We think we know what we want, but we also realize that it doesn’t happen without the city being on board,” Semchenko said last week to the Park Advisory Committee, “So, we’re here to ask for your support of what we’re trying to do.”

Filed as a non-profit with the state of South Dakota, the group enlightened the park advisory committee on the progress they’ve made over the last two months. For starters, they’ve formed an advisory team and met with 22 local community business influencers in late January to gauge interest, Semchenko said.

“We received nearly unanimous support from those 22 on moving forward with this.”

They’ve also established a relationship with a local-regional fundraising consultant, Ellie Highstreet. Semchenko said she most recently led the effort to build Sioux Falls Jefferson High School, a $180 million project and had a role in securing a $1 million gift to the Yankton soccer program.

“We paid her to help get started but then realized we have a long way to go, so she’ll be helpful down the road,” he said.

To date, the non-profit has brought in more than $14,000 from individuals or groups in Brandon. They’ve also partnered with the Brandon Valley Journal in launching The L.Y.N.X. Podcast (Love Your Neighbor). To date, 11 episodes have aired, reaching more than 20,000 people and generating nearly 400 page likes.

“The purpose of The L.Y.N.X. Podcast is to build community,” Semchenko said.

The Journal staff is helping to secure $600 sponsorships for each season.

Recent newcomer to Brandon Mike Bergst, a retired builder and Brandon Wellness board member, told the park advisory committee that Semchenko’s passion for building a community wellness center is infectious.

“The passion that John has for this wellness center is the passion that I have to get it built. When he told me about the project, I said, ‘I think I can help you out.’ I’ve been doing this for quite a long time and I’ve established, gone out and visited with many different construction companies in this area,” he said.

After first meeting with city staff to discuss the idea, to date, Bergst has visited seven different facilities, including the Watertown wellness center, which he said that design was the most impressive.

The wellness group have identified Aspen Park as their intended location. 

“What did you like about Watertown’s facility?” asked Mindy Hansen, a park advisory committee member.

Bergst said when they walked into the building, he had an overwhelming feeling of “Wow!”

“And that’s what you we got from this facility. It was so open and it felt really warm,” he said.

The wellness center, the group stresses, would not be limited to only sports programs.

“We’re talking about wellness, we’re talking about weightlifting, we’re talking about meeting rooms,” Bergst said. “The most important part is we want to keep the people here instead of going somewhere else. Ultimately, a facility like we saw there would attract people. During those five major winter months, they still have a place to go. I think that’s something we can do here and I think it will generate some more income for the whole community. That’s what our belief is.”

Jon Jacobson, chairman of the park advisory committee, said they favor working in tandem with groups like Brandon Wellness.

“That’s very important to us from a tax base point of view and a funding point of view. We’re pretty poor when it comes to public infrastructure projects and the dollars that we can put towards them. What we’ve accomplished in the community has been typically in conjunction with different private groups and associations. So, we really appreciate you taking the bull by the horns and start to address this need.”

Park advisory committee member Adam Rothenberger asked about the project timeline. Semchenko said the Watertown facility came in at just over $24 million in 2018 and said the city provided the majority of the finances.

Bergst estimated a 14 to 18 month building process.

“You’ll probably spend three times as long funding the building, creating partnerships to do it right,” Jacobson said. “It’s certainly a longer time commitment and I think you always do risk of burning yourself out. If you realize that as a group and just kind of commit for the long haul, I think that’s an important step. From my perspective, I think there’s some important relationships to start to build because we’re not going to get a facility of something like this without some serious revenue. It’s not all going to be private dollars. I think talking to Bryan (Read, city administrator) and talking to representatives of the council, like Barb (Fish), will be really important.”

On Monday, the city council voiced their support for the project, but did not commit any funding at this time.

Jacobson stepped up to facilitate a meeting between Brandon Wellness and the other associations in Brandon, including baseball, softball, soccer, hockey and tennis.

“You can’t have a bunch of different groups working against each other. That’s probably one of the most problematic things. … It’s way too easy for everyone to pull back and say, ‘We’re just going to do what we need’ because it too hard,” Jacobson said.

Semchenko said the group recognizes that “it’s a marathon, not a sprint and we’re still jogging towards the start line.”

“But momentum’s building and we would really like to work with these groups,” he said. “The greatest resource Brandon has is its people. I really have been inspired by how the citizens of Brandon have come around this to support it with a lot of willingness and a lot of energy to help, not only financially. Corporate sponsorships I think will come.”

Hansen applauded the non-profit group for their efforts.

“I’m 100 percent behind this. I think this is a great idea and we’ve wanted this for a long time,” she said. “To see a group of citizens step up and really take charge and take a lead on it is wonderful to see.”

A Brandon Wellness website will be launched later this week. To access the website, visit

By: Jill Meier, Journal editor, Brandon Valley Journal Published March 22, 2022