Foundation's story intertwined with county's story

By JENNIFER COHRON
Posted 6/9/19

Imagine Walker County without the Walker Area Community Foundation. It is a world where APEX playground may not exist so that children of all abilities can play because there wouldn't have been …

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Foundation's story intertwined with county's story

Posted

Imagine Walker County without the Walker Area Community Foundation. 

It is a world where APEX playground may not exist so that children of all abilities can play because there wouldn't have been a $25,000 matching grant in 2007.

It is a world where survivors of the 2011 tornadoes still live in unacceptable conditions because there was no Walker County Long Term Recovery Committee.

It is a world where there is no Bankhead House and Heritage Center to preserve the stories of the county's communities and people.

It is a world where Jasper Main Street does not have its largest funder for the revitalization of downtown and where Walker County Lake is not attracting new visitors because of improvements such as the new archery park.

It is a world where dozens of nonprofits doing good work every day do not have a local reliable funding source and have had to find somewhere else to turn for the $20 million in grants awarded by the Foundation in the past two decades.

Erase the creation of the Foundation in 1995 with the $6 million in proceeds from the sale of Walker Regional Medical Center and the history of Walker County is changed in obvious and troubling ways.

The Foundation acknowledges its symbiotic relationship with the county that makes it possible in its annual report, which is being released this week. 

It is titled "Tell YOUR Story," with an emphasis on "our" as part of "your."  

"Your investment in this Foundation is creating a story of community change, legacy and lasting impact. We are a collection of people working behind the scenes to make the best stories come to life. This story is our story, together," writes Beth Stukes, chair of the Foundation's board of directors.

In 1995, John T. Oliver Jr., Pat Willingham, the late George Mitnick and the late Larry Drummond started writing a story that wasn't supposed to be possible.

Experts in such matters suggest that a population of at least 100,000 is needed to build a successful community foundation. The county's current population stands at slightly less than 64,000.

Yet the Foundation's report points to a year of great growth, with $43.5 million in gifts received and the tripling of its assets between 2017 and 2018. 

Last year, the Foundation invested over $2 million in area nonprofits — a far cry from the $289,300 awarded in 1997 to its first seven grant recipients.

In 2000, Carol Savage was hired as the Foundation's first executive director.

Savage, confessing no knowledge of foundations, accepted a small office in the current Jasper Civic Center building downtown, reached out to her counterparts in the handful of active community foundations in the state at the time and traveled to each to examine the foundations’ inner workings and assess their attributes.

Savage would serve until 2006, during which time she established precedents such as the annual report and a quarterly newsletter in which announcements are made and honorary and memorial gifts are acknowledged. 

In 2008, the Foundation purchased the former home of U.S. Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead and announced plans to turn it into an art center and museum.

The Bankhead House and Heritage Center opened in 2010 and has hosted a rotating series of exhibits since 2011. Events are also hosted throughout the year in its amphitheater.

The House has hosted two exhibits from the Smithsonian Institute — "Journey Stories" in 2011 and "WaterWays" in 2018.

In 2011, the Foundation became more than a passive provider of funds after tornadoes struck the county, destroying 156 homes and extensively damaging 170 more.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s initial report found more than $4 million in  unmet needs.

The Foundation’s Unmet Needs Fund, established more than a decade prior as a result of tornadoes that struck Carbon Hill, was reactivated within a week of the disaster. The money that was set to go out in the spring grant cycle, $250,000, was obligated to it with $50,000 earmarked to address immediate needs.

National disaster groups sent volunteers because finances were available and outside funders supported recovery efforts because volunteers and the Foundation had demonstrated a commitment.

The Foundation was also instrumental in the organization of the Walker County Long Term Recovery Committee, which oversaw rebuilding and repair projects. In two years, the Foundation distributed $2 million for recovery efforts, and an additional $2 million in in-kind labor was provided by volunteer organizations.

In 2012, the Foundation awarded more than $3.6 million in grants — the most in its history.

Today, the Foundation continues to be a catalyst for change through the Walker County Health Action Partnership, which has been working to provide more access to healthy foods and outdoor activities since 2013, and Jasper Main Street, which has led the revitalization efforts downtown. 

In 2017, the Foundation helped secure two important grants related to workforce development — $1.9 million to Bevill State Community College for a Rapid Training Center and $1.2 million to the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham to increase entrepreneurial opportunities to replace job losses in the coal mining industry.

The Foundation's work would be impossible without donors — those who make large gifts and establish Component funds and the many others who make individual donations according to their ability to support projects in which they believe.

The Foundation is the conduit for funding to flow from the people who give to the people who do the work of meeting needs in Walker County.  

"Every great story has a hero, and every hero has a guiding light that helps them along the way. The nonprofit organizations of Walker County are our hero. The work they accomplish daily makes life better for the clients they serve, including hungry people being fed; children in need being supported by adults who care about their future; volunteers spreading love while meeting the needs of others; addictions being conquered because of planning, counseling and faith in God; and Walker County’s great heritage being showcased in a facility that is rich with love for our community," Stukes said in the annual report.