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2022 Annual Report:
For Greg Aaron, Kokomo is truly home. He has lived in the city of nearly 60,000 residents his entire life. He graduated from Kokomo High School and Indiana University-Kokomo and built a career in public service here, working city jobs in traffic and engineering and then leading the Kokomo-Howard County Development Corp. Now he is president of the Community Foundation Serving Howard, Clinton & Carroll Counties.
Given his service to his community, if anyone in Kokomo was positioned to know about challenges facing this north-central part of Indiana, it was Aaron (right). Yet the toll of substance use disorder and unmet mental health needs in Kokomo and surrounding communities was often hidden from community leaders, including Aaron. In 2019 that began to change.
Through the seventh phase of its statewide initiative, Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow (GIFT VII), Lilly Endowment provided planning grants for Indiana community foundations to identify and prioritize the most pressing local needs and challenges in their communities and evaluate potential solutions. Planning grants were also intended to help foundations prepare for implementation grants to activate promising strategies to address the prioritized needs and challenges. The Endowment funding encouraged foundations to host community conversations, gather focus groups and conduct research, among other efforts, to find out what matters most to residents and other community stakeholders. Foundation leadership in Howard County and neighboring Carroll and Clinton counties seized the opportunity to question their assumptions and comb the community for ideas.
During a six-month period in 2019, leaders hosted community gatherings in all three counties. Residents shared hopes that their communities could become places marked by strong mental health and economic well-being, cultural diversity and freedom from drugs. Additional conversations with healthcare providers, law enforcement personnel and mental health experts shed light on the need to address the impact of addiction and mental illness. Research about how individuals and families were being affected by addiction and mental illness added to the planning process, Aaron says.
“At the forums we learned from law enforcement officers that a drop-in center for people in crisis would be helpful, instead of having emergency rooms and jails as the only options for first responders,” Aaron recalls. “So many people are affected by these issues.”
It was becoming clear that there were not enough services for individuals facing substance use disorders and mental illness. Although Turning Point-System of Care, a local nonprofit providing mental health services and referrals, was doing its best to help, the community needed more. Planning grant activities led to a new strategy in Howard, Carroll and Clinton counties that the Endowment supported in 2020 with implementation grants totaling just over $5 million.
With those funds, Turning Point was able to turn the former Columbian Elementary School into a care center where clients attend support meetings. Individuals in crisis can stay for several days with direction and care from addiction specialists. Relationships with law enforcement agencies, area hospitals and Mental Health America-Wabash Valley Region in Carroll County and Healthy Communities in Clinton County are helping Turning Point keep people in need of treatment for substance use disorders and those experiencing mental health crises out of jail and the emergency room when possible.
“It was critical that we had consensus on what the priority was and how a drop-in center could meet various needs within the community. This helped us be able to share the rationale and the vision for the project, which helped people immediately support the project,” says Matt Oliver, Turning Point CEO. “The community conversations were invaluable.”
Samantha Mansfield, at age 30, has received a new lease on life through Recovery Café (below), a Turning Point program. The Kokomo resident is connecting with staff, others recovering from substance use disorder and new friends who are helping her to emerge from years of substance abuse.
“I am safe there,” Mansfield says. “Just about everyone in the room has experienced in one way or another the feelings I have. I’m not able to see the beauty in myself by myself. It gives me hope that even if I’m having a bad day, it’s just a bad moment in my day. It keeps me from impulsive decisions.”
Aaron believes the timing of the GIFT VII initiative could not have been better. The foundation had just completed a strategic plan, but the Endowment’s planning grants nudged leaders to rediscover the potential to inspire change far beyond the organization’s long-standing roles of distributing local grants and scholarships.
“We accomplished so much more than with our strategic plan,” Aaron adds. “The Endowment grant built our credibility. We listened.”
A $50,000 GIFT VII planning grant to the Warren County Community Foundation prompted a surge in community engagement among residents in this largely rural county west of Lafayette, Ind.
Planning dollars inspired foundation board members and other local leaders to attend conferences and brainstorm with representatives from Ball State University’s Indiana Communities Institute. Community conversations with local residents, including 150 high school students, initially focused upon the needs of senior citizens and youth, possible economic development projects, and efforts to attract and retain young professionals in the region. Soon, however, foundation leaders realized that there was consensus around another idea: residents really wanted to see Williamsport Falls (below) become a recreation destination.
At 90 feet, Williamsport Falls is the tallest freestanding waterfall in Indiana. Residents have long considered the location a social center for locals and a potential tourism attraction, particularly considering its proximity to the town center of Williamsport. During the planning process, foundation leaders were reminded that more than five decades earlier—in 1964—local residents documented their vision for Williamsport Falls as a tourist destination. “These ideas have come up time and time again. Children and grandchildren of those earlier citizens have been among the new wave of community development participants,” according to the proposal from Warren County Community Foundation for an implementation grant to support the creation of the new Falls Branch Park.
The Endowment awarded a $350,000 implementation grant, which energized volunteers and helped the community foundation solicit in-kind donations to develop the park.
Residents stepped up and built a nine-hole disc golf course through the falls valley. Others removed invasive plant species, such as bush honeysuckle. A Williamsport business specializing in laser metal cutting, AccuBurn, designed and built trail signs and a welcome sign for the falls area. Town employees created a rock trail. The Metropolitan School District of Warren County contributed a strip of land near the top of the falls to improve access for a planned farmers market and picnic area. Permanent corn hole games, picnic tables, benches and charcoal grills will be installed at the top of the falls. Stairs linking the top and the bottom of the falls are under construction.
Momentum ignited by the planning grant helped the community foundation expand its engagement with county government, which led to converting a wooded former Boy Scout camp into a nature center called Fleming Woods County Park. Miles of trails through largely unspoiled forest now include outdoor musical instruments to spark young imaginations, an amenity made possible by an $8,600 grant from Subaru’s SIA Foundation. And tree stumps carved into shapes of animals and mushrooms now enliven hikes and school cross-country practices.
Warren County Community Foundation Executive Director Michele Stucky says that in-kind support is valued at $255,000, and she estimates that one in 10 of the county’s 8,440 residents have participated in the endeavors to develop the falls recreation area.
The improvements fit neatly into plans by Wabash River Enhancement Corp. to make the falls trail a spoke for the planned 90-mile Wabash River Greenway, which will pass alongside Williamsport. The greenway is one of the initiatives of Wabash Heartland Innovation Network, a 10-county consortium funded in 2017 with $40 million in funding from the Endowment through its Strategic Community Advancement Initiatives.
The burst of GIFT VII-inspired activity also prompted the first major update to the Warren County/Williamsport parks plan since 1996 and the first update to the county comprehensive plan since 1979.
“We have gained confidence as a community that we can address tough issues facing small, rural communities,” Stucky says. “The GIFT VII funding has given our county momentum that will carry us through many other projects and a platform to create partnerships that will last for many years to come.”
GIFT is a Lilly Endowment initiative designed to help strengthen community foundations in Indiana and build their capacity to support the needs of their local communities. Launched in 1990, GIFT has helped community foundations develop their leadership capacities, fund special projects, build unrestricted endowments and inspire others to give through challenge grants.