Nonprofits contribute to the Northern Neck’s quality of life

Nonprofits contribute to the Northern Neck’s quality of life

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Print this page by Lee Graves

When Northern Neck residents began to have their jobs, homes, pantries and futures ravaged by the recession, they knew where to turn.

Not to a one-time infusion of aid from elsewhere, but rather to an established network of private and nonprofit groups run by their neighbors. “This is a rural area, and you can’t hide from neighbors in need,” says Margaret Nost, executive director of the River Counties Community Foundation. “We see the needs, and it’s personal because we know the families.”

A well-oiled philanthropic engine churned into motion in a concerted effort called the Safety Net fund. The Jessie Ball duPont Fund provided a matching grant of $50,000. The Richmond-based Community Foundation, parent of the River Counties group, dug into its reserves for $12,500. Other groups pitched in, as did private donors and local governments.

As a result, last fall more than $83,000 was distributed to social-service agencies, the local Red Cross and church-centered food banks to help residents in need.

Though the circumstances leading to the Safety Net fund are unusual, the spirit of the response is not. Private-public partnerships led by philanthropic groups have worked to improve life in the Northern Neck in numerous ways, from water quality to early childhood education. Undergirding it all, say program leaders, is a uniquely cohesive community. “There’s a broad spirit of volunteering in the Northern Neck,” says the Rev. Ed King Jr., senior program officer with the duPont Fund. “They probably could give out a thousand ‘points of light’ there.”

Two of those points of light would surely go to Jessie Ball duPont and Nettie Lokey Wiley, were they still alive. Both grew up on the Northern Neck, championed education and devoted their lives to helping others.
The duPont fund, based in Florida, targets the Northern Neck as one of five core areas in the nation, thanks to provisions of duPont’s will. More than 40 organizations receive assistance in Lancaster, Northumberland, Westmoreland and Richmond counties. “She had a great love of the Northern Neck,” says Sherry Magill, president of the fund.

News Between 1977 and 2009, the duPont fund awarded more than $9.5 million in competitive grants in the region. “The duPont fund has become the largest single donor in the Northern Neck, period,” says Tom Gosse, president of the Nettie Lokey Wiley and Charles L.Wiley Foundation board. “What’s nice about that is that it’s every year — it’s not just once and gone.”

Magill says the success of that long-term presence depends on strong partnerships, public and private. “In part, the benefit of private money is that it can respond quickly and can be creative and innovative. But private entities don’t write public policy. We need each other.”

Without any substantial industrial and corporate presence — yet still with a spirit of independence born of geography — residents have become accustomed to looking to their own resources, including funds for the future. “There were so many small, individual family foundations,” says Gosse, who also is CEO of the Northern Neck Insurance Co. “There were enough of those little pots of money that it became obvious that as family members died out, there wouldn’t be anybody to keep that going.”

To that end, the River Counties Community Foundation was established in 1996. Since then, the group has received nearly $8 million in gifts and has given out grants of about $3.5 million, Nost says. Donations not only help efforts such as the Safety Net fund but also go toward libraries, schools, hospitals and clinics.  “We’ve got the finest free health clinics in the state, right here in the Northern Neck,” says Nost.

Current initiatives show that, although the recession has taken some steam out of donations, the engine still has plenty of power. One initiative focuses on education. The Wiley Foundation applied to the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, a public-private partnership, to develop a Smart Beginnings program for early childhood development in two counties. “We are the first Smart Beginnings program in rural Virginia,” Gosse says. “The program is wonderful because it is all locally defined and locally run.”

And the impetus created by the Safety Net initiative has spawned a long-term project called VISIONS, a collaborative effort to reduce poverty and improve education. Members have raised a rallying cry of “I Can, I Will.” Gosse says that kind of spirit suggests a model for communities elsewhere. And he credits the duPont Fund with building a culture of sustainability and long-term vision. “One can only hope that in the next 20 years that the conversations that they’ve started — with the potential money they have to back it up — will truly transform this formerly agricultural area into something that’s pretty vibrant. I think it has great possibilities.”

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