March 8, 2012
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Ten years ago, the New College Institute (NCI) did not exist to help area residents earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees close to home.
There was no Martinsville Henry County Coalition for Health and Wellness to help people struggling financially obtain affordable health care and medicine.
Neither was there a network of local walking and biking trails to help people get exercise and enjoy the outdoors.
Those services and facilities, plus many others targeting a better quality of life, have happened in the past decade with help from The Harvest Foundation.
Harvest funds local organizations’ efforts to boost community vitality and improve residents’ health and education levels. Since its founding in 2002, Harvest has awarded 180 grants totaling more than $74 million, according to President Allyson Rothrock.
That includes about $16.4 million for projects related to health; $23.5 million for projects pertaining to education, leadership and capacity building; and $34.5 million for projects related to community vitality.
The foundation was established through the investment of $150 million in proceeds from the sale of Memorial Hospital in Martinsville.
Nationwide, there are about 190 “health legacy” foundations such as Harvest, but having one is “unique to a place with 70,000 people,” Rothrock said, referring to the approximate total population of the county and city.
Most legacy foundations have been established in communities with larger medical centers or at least 150,000 to 200,000 residents, she said.
Furthermore, most of them provide grants on a regional or statewide basis, and to have one that serves just a small city and its surrounding rural county is unusual, said Nancy Cox, Harvest’s director of programs.
In a decade, Harvest has become “a big player in a small place” in terms of its work to improve the community, Cox said.
Harvest’s unique, prominent role in the community convinced Cox — who has more than 30 years of experience in nonprofit, community-based programs — to come to the foundation in 2008. She previously worked for the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.
In learning about Harvest, “I was shocked and amazed at what I saw,” she said, in terms of funding the foundation has provided to local organizations.
Not all of Harvest’s work involves awarding grants. The foundation is involved in efforts to help the community, such as consulting for local organizations.
“Some of our greatest partners never have gotten a penny from us,” said Rothrock, mentioning the Community Storehouse as an example.
The storehouse provides services, including a food pantry, for needy households. Its executive director, Travis Adkins, said Harvest has answered questions and done research to help the storehouse avoid duplicating services provided by other organizations.
“They are more aware (than any single organization) of what other organizations are doing” to help the community so the storehouse can cooperate with them, Adkins said.
Harvest funds strategies benefiting the community in the long run, said Rothrock.
Only not-for-profit, tax-exempt organizations can apply for Harvest grants.
The foundation’s grant budget is based on 5 percent of annual earnings on its investments. That usually amounts to $9 million to $10 million annually, according to Rothrock.
In deciding whether to fund a project, she said, Harvest considers its ability to help transform the community into a better place to live and work. Also, “we don’t want it to duplicate something” already being done locally.
Funding decisions are made by Harvest’s board, not the staff, she emphasized.
Harvest’s largest grant to date has been a $50 million challenge put forth to the state to launch a public, four-year university locally. It has resulted in NCI — a higher education center working toward that goal — receiving a dollar-for-dollar local match of all its state funds.
NCI so far has received about $10 million from Harvest, Rothrock said.
Many area residents lacked an affordable opportunity to seek a bachelor’s or master’s degree because there was no public university within a two-hour drive, she said.
By its ability to allow students to pursue degrees locally, NCI is “the biggest transformative effort in this community right now,” Rothrock said, explaining why the challenge grant was issued.
Eric Penn of Chatmoss and Stephanie Wagoner of Martinsville would have been unable to pursue bachelor’s degrees if it had not been for NCI.
Earning a degree in business administration from Averett University via NCI has created job advancement opportunities for Penn on the business side of health care.
“College has taught me to be professional ... and built my confidence,” said Penn, who is working in the business office of an area hospital. “When you do your best, opportunities present themselves.”
At NCI, Wagoner earned a nursing degree from Radford University. She said attending the institute helped her to make professional contacts that have benefited her as a member of the practical nursing faculty at Patrick Henry Community College.
Harvest monitors the progress of projects it funds. According to Rothrock, the foundation so far has not asked any organization to return grant funds because it was not pleased with the progress or the outcome of a project.
However, “every decision we’ve made has not been the greatest decision,” Rothrock admitted. Such instances have been few, though, she said.
An example is Harvest’s decision to fund the construction of an arena in uptown Martinsville. The foundation backed away from that project after officials realized it was not sustainable in today’s economy.
Rothrock said local school systems declined to pay to use the arena and it was determined that ongoing public financial support was not likely “in the worst recession ... since the Depression.”
It is better to call off a project than to do it and watch it fail, she added.
Harvest plans to “exist into perpetuity,” Rothrock said. But the foundation cannot be “the sole engine” that generates positive changes, she said.
Often, she said, "it's all about partnerships and relationships" among people and organizations, their ability to envision ways to improve the community and their willingness when needed to "roll up their sleeves...and get their hands dirty" to make those improvements.
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