SHARON, Pa. – When Sherris Moreira became executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce four years ago, she realized if the chamber wanted to help the community “at the level we wanted to help them,” it would need to expand beyond economic development efforts.
Case in point, when the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown in Pennsylvania, the chamber had difficulty accruing funds and personal protective equipment for area businesses, she says. As a chamber with a 501c6 designation, it was ineligible for PPE supplied by the state or federal governments.
“There’s nothing out there for c6’s right now,” Moreira says. “So, the PPE that everyone else is applying for, we could not apply for.”
This prompted the chamber to take the steps necessary to form a 501c3 nonprofit component, she says. It’s something she and the chamber board had been discussing for a few years. The pandemic expedited that decision.
With the Community Foundation of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio as fiscal agent, in August the chamber established the Shenango Valley Chamber Charitable fund. The 501c3 component enables the chamber to apply for additional dollars earmarked for community development projects.
“Community development is the other side of the coin of economic development,” Moreira says. “Businesses aren’t going to locate anywhere if they don’t see a bustling Main Street and quality of life.”
Now donors can write off their contributions to the fund, which will help with fundraising efforts, Moreira says.
“We were getting foundations giving us money. And that was fine because they knew it was going right back out,” Moreira says. “But the reality is, if we had a c3, we probably could have got more funding to help more people in this time of need.”
As fiscal agent, the Community Foundation manages the fund. By accepting donations as a 501c3, it opens up more doors for the chamber, says Kyle English, Community Foundation executive director.
“It’s obvious the chamber has been doing a lot for the community in the past few months. We will work with them to ensure they are able to accept donations from the general public to continue to do that good work,” English says. “We’re here to make sure that anybody who wants to give back to the community is able to do so.”
While working with the chamber, English says he’s noticed how Moreira “does a really good job at identifying gaps that exist in the community” and filling them. For example, the chamber helped organize a Halloween Mask and Treat event in collaboration with Park Inn by Radisson in West Middlesex, which isn’t typically part of the chamber’s role.
“It ensures kids can get some sort of normalcy around Halloween,” he says.
The Mask and Treat event was a “true community collaboration” because community partners helped to pack more than 1,200 treat bags and more than 500 PPE bags for the Oct. 24 event, Moreira says. Some 700 children and their families signed up to participate. Children wearing costumes received treat bags. Each vehicle also got a PPE bag with disposable masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.
Donations for the event were used to buy candy from area businesses such as Save A Lot and Daffin’s Candies in Sharon, and Kraynak’s and D’Onofrio’s Food Center in Hermitage, she says.
“We raised over $7,000. Some of it went toward masks – also with a local company – but the rest went to buy candy locally,” she says, referencing the collaboration with Park Inn by Radisson.
Other events include a community scavenger hunt organized by the chamber’s Leadership Shenango Fall 2020 class. The event is the first official fundraiser for the charitable fund and runs through Dec. 18. Teams of four can compete for $25.
Participants in the #TeamShenangoValley Community Scavenger Hunt must complete a list of 100 tasks in and around the community, such as buying lunch at a local restaurant or donating a book to a freestanding library.
“I am so excited to help bring this scavenger hunt to the Shenango Valley,” says Alicia Seitz, a senior associate with HBK CPAs & Consultants in Hermitage, Pa., and a participant in the Leadership Shenango program, Fall 2020. “We have a lot of great restaurants, shops, nonprofits and historical sites and I think this is the perfect opportunity to involve the community and bring awareness for all the great things right here in front of our eyes.”
Prizes include gift cards for local businesses and restaurants. Participants can sign up at the chamber’s Facebook page. All proceeds go toward the charitable fund, Moreira says, although some funds will be put back into Leadership Shenango.
The chamber looks to leverage the fund to provide other initiatives in the area, including assistance for entrepreneurs, she says.
And those efforts go well beyond COVID-19, English says. “When we’re on the other side of this, the chamber has voiced they want to keep doing activities,” he says, and filling those gaps.
Charitable foundations have been challenged to remain nimble in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to best meet the changing needs of the community, English continues.
“A lot of the traditional grants that we made in the past, there just wasn’t a need for them,” he says. “We were trying to time things around what the organizations were telling us and what they thought their need would be for funding.”
Hunger was a primary concern at the onset of the pandemic, he says. Because the eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires at the end of the year, English expects organizations that help residents with rent will need funds.
As of Oct. 19, the Community Foundation has granted $6.44 million this year from all of the funds it manages, English says, “a bit down” from where it was because of all the government money available.
As those government funds are spent, however, “we’re seeing more demand,” he says. “We expect grant activity to pick up through December and definitely into 2021 as well.”
The foundation heads into the fall “in a position of strength” after its inaugural Giving Week fundraiser in August, he says. The seven-day event generated more than $575,000 in donations to be distributed to 45 area organizations. That will help those used to receiving state funding who are “pretty concerned for 2021,” he says.
To meet whatever needs arise will require the foundation to stay engaged with organizations like the chamber and keep close communication with donors so they have the most up-to-date information on the community and its needs, he says.
“We stand at the ready to help whoever needs help in the community,” English says. “And if 2020 has taught us anything, you have to be engaged, you have to be creative, you have to be nimble and ready for anything.”
Pictured: Joni Murray, UPMC Horizon director of volunteer services and community relations, and Marsha Murphy, administrative assistant, volunteer services, help distribute Mask and Treat bags.