Community foundation at the center of positive change

School is in session on a sunny, brisk spring morning in Holyrood, a small community in Ellsworth County that isn’t far from the Sunflower State’s midpoint. So the park that sits in the shadow of the town’s water tower on Olds Avenue is void of the sights and sounds of playing children.

These are rare occurrences, according to Rob Koch, a Holyrood resident and board member for the Smoky Hills Charitable Foundation, which assisted in funding the park’s modern playground equipment and covered picnic area a few years ago.

“Essentially, there had been nothing for the kids to play on except old wooden swings for years and years,” Koch said. “It’s a huge change to have a place for kids to go. We have covered picnic benches for families. It’s used a lot more than I thought it would be.”

That is the essence of the Smoky Hills Charitable Foundation, which was founded in 2000 to connect charitable giving with emerging and existing needs of communities like Holyrood, Ellsworth, Kanopolis, Lorraine and Wilson. Smoky Hills was the first affiliate of the Greater Salina Community Foundation.

The Foundation’s handprints are found throughout Ellsworth County’s rural communities. From parks in Holyrood and Lorraine to vein-locating equipment at Ellsworth County Medical Center to a cement foundation for the “world’s largest Czech egg” tourist attraction in Wilson, Smoky Hills has provided funding.

“When we started, we were not a fundraising organization,” said Sara Soukup, a past chair who is not on the current Smoky Hills board, but has served two six-year terms. “We just sort of sat there and if somebody passed away and left money in an estate or we had a memorial, then OK.”

A game changer emerged in 2011 when Smoky Hills was accepted to receive a $300,000 matching grant from the Kansas Health Foundation’s Giving Resources to Our World (GROW II) Healthy Kansas Initiative. Selected foundations were challenged to raise endowment funds that KHF would match.

Over a six-year period, endowed gifts to the Smoky Hills Community Fund, Smoky Hills Healthy Living Fund and the Smoky Hills Administrative Fund earned a 50 percent match. All other endowed gifts, with the exception of scholarship funds, earned a 25 percent match.

“One of the biggest parts of the contribution is it allowed us to advertise out in the communities and start organizational funds,” said Theresa Staudinger, an Ellsworth attorney and current chair of the Smoky Hills Charitable Foundation. “Some of them were endowed, but others we were able to use immediately and that really helped us.”

That evidence is found in the fenced-in play area at the Ellsworth Childcare and Learning Center, where two areas of age-appropriate playground equipment have provided an outdoor oasis for kids since it opened in 2012. At Ellsworth Elementary, Staudinger’s sister-in-law, Danielle Kasper, oversees her class of second-grade students as some do daily assignments on 10 Hewlett-Packard laptop computers.

Back in Holyrood, a sign-in sheet reveals the names of those who checked in that day to use state-of-the-art treadmills and elliptical fitness machines in an exercise room at the town’s fire station.

All of the equipment was funded with assistance from the Smoky Hills Charitable Foundation. According to the Foundation’s 2016 annual report, Smoky Hills has awarded more than $463,000 in grants and scholarships since its inception. Beneficiaries of SHCF grants in 2016 included Ellsworth USD 327, Central Plains USD 112, 4-H clubs, churches, Ellsworth County Medical Center patients, city governments and non-profit organizations.

To perpetuate the giving spirit, the Foundation conducts Match Madness, a one-day event designed to generate new gifts to local non-profits’ endowed funds for long-term support and current gifts for immediate needs. This year’s Match Madness is scheduled for May 2.

The payoff for Ellsworth County’s communities isn’t just monetary.

“The group effort it took to put our park together created a sense of community that might have been lacking in a generation and now it’s really strong,” Koch said. “That generation that’s busy with small kids, they’re looking for other projects now. It’s been awesome.”

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