How Foundations Fuel Community Improvements

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Foundations provide the essentials of community improvement. They supply the funds to individuals and organizations with missions that make life better.

Across the Mahoning and Shenango valleys, foundations focus on improving the quality of the lives of the residents they serve.

Despite charitable giving falling more than 10% nationally in 2022, directors of Valley foundations report progress.

Tremendous Growth

Shari Harrell, president of the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, will retire in March after 10 years in the position. Casey Krell, the director of the foundation overseeing supporting organizations and donor services, will step into the president’s seat.

“We’ve experienced tremendous growth,” Harrell says of the foundation. “When I first started, there were three of us. Now there are eight of us.”

The number of funds and the amount of foundation assets have grown too. The foundation has 172 funds and assets sit at more than $83 million – more than $43 million at the foundation alone with nearly $40 million at the supporting organizations.

So far this year, the foundation and its supporting organizations have distributed $2.6 million in grants with the foundation portion making up $1.9 million of that.

The William Swanston Charitable Fund, the Trumbull Memorial Health Foundation and the Western Reserve Health Foundation are supporting organizations for the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley.

One focus of the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley over the last several years has been the Healthy Community Partnership. “We’re focusing on the social determinants of health, things that influence your health and wellness,” Harrell says.

The three focus areas of the Healthy Community Partnership are healthful food retail, active transportation and parks and green spaces.

The partnership involves many organizations committed to making a healthier Mahoning Valley including residents, health department directors and business owners.

Equity has been another focal point, Harrell says. The foundation works to connect with smaller nonprofits and grassroots organizations to ensure those entities feel comfortable seeking grant funding. Part of that involves focusing on neighborhoods and areas of the community that suffer underinvestment.

It’s not just about access to health care, she says. It’s about whether health care practitioners look like the people they’re serving and are they trusted by the people they serve.

Best Year Ever

The Community Foundation of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio boasts $154 million in assets. While giving nationally took a hit last year, “We’ve seen the opposite,” says its executive director, Kyle English. “2022 was our best year ever.”

Last year, the foundation received $18 million in donations and has received $15 million so far this year. Most of those come in smaller amounts.

“Our philosophy with the community foundation is that anyone can be a philanthropist,” English says. “The largest number, 40% of the donations we receive, are under $1,000.”

The foundation has planned gifts and donor-advised funds. Its Lifting Individuals for the Trades, or LIFT, program, began a few years ago and is beginning to gain traction.

The program provides help for people who want to improve their lives by entering the trades but haven’t because of a financial obstacle.

Housing and transportation costs are the main hurdles. If a person has to skip a work shift to attend training for a trade for example, LIFT helps to pay that person’s rent, car payment or insurance.

The average age of those helped through LIFT is 31 and the foundation has paid about $1,000 over a few months for each of those that have needed help, an amount English calls well worth the investment.

The foundation serves Mercer and Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania and Trumbull County in Ohio.

Healthful Living

The Mercy Health Foundation Mahoning Valley is the support organization for Mercy Health Youngstown and also supports community organizations that align with its mission.

Paul Homick Jr., foundation president, says its initiatives zero in on the social determinants of health: access to health care, food insecurity, prescription assistance.

One of those efforts is a mobile dental clinic. “We take care of people who don’t have access to or wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to a dentist,” Homick says. “We do that regardless of someone’s ability to pay.”

The foundation also funds screenings for cancer and other diseases through mobile services.

The Resource Mothers and Fatherhood Support Programs connect expectant parents with mentors to help them prepare to best care for themselves and their babies. Homick says those services continue for a year after the child’s birth.

The foundation also funds other initiatives aimed at improving the health of Valley residents, Homick says.

One is the Stepping Out program that brings fitness classes to various locations throughout the community. It’s free to participants and classes range from cardio to strength training to those aimed at seniors. Classes also cover healthful food and nutrition.

“We’ve always had an interest in the social determinants of health and in empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle,” Homick says. “It’s always been something we‘ve been focused on. But we noticed during the pandemic that there’s  more of a need.”

Regular community health-needs assessments help the foundation, as well as other organizations with which it works, to determine the most pressing health needs of the community.

Focus on Youth

The Buhl Regional Health Foundation became a private foundation two years ago. It focuses on improving the health and wellness of the youth of Mercer County.

Youth health and wellness will be the center of the foundation goals for the next three years, says Jennifer Barborak, foundation executive director.

That change came out of statistics that rank Mercer County No. 58 for health out of the 67 Pennsylvania counties. The ranking, by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, looks at health screenings, disease diagnoses, the incidence of obesity, smoking trends and other factors.

“Once an adult is diagnosed, that’s a number,” Barborak says. “We want to start to change the health of youth to keep them from becoming a number.”

The foundation is working with  hospital systems in the community and other organizations to improve youth health in Mercer County.

Another initiative is scholarships for Mercer County high school students who want to pursue careers in  health care, Barborak says.

The foundation also worked with a mobile dental clinic to provide dental care for residents who need it but cannot afford it. That care was offered to all residents, not just youth. It involved providers, volunteers and students from the dental program at the University of Pittsburgh.

“We saw 220 individuals over that two-day period,” Barborak says.

Another initiative involves providing AEDs (automated external defibrillators) to various organizations including schools and sports programs. About 100 have been distributed in the last 18 months. Training is provided by foundation partner the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.