Osceola County Community Foundation celebrates 25 years

OSCEOLA COUNTY — It's a big year for the Osceola County Community Foundation, which is celebrating its silver anniversary throughout 2016.

The OCCF, which is an affiliate of the Fremont Area Community Foundation, provides scholarships and grants that support and enhance residents, students, areas and organizations in Osceola County. This year is the foundation's 25th anniversary and it has been going strong since its establishment.

Throughout the past two and a half decades, the OCCF has awarded $1.9 million to local nonprofit organizations and community programs which serve Osceola County residents, according to Maria Gonzalez, foundation manager of the Fremont Area Community Foundation. It also currently has $7.6 million in assets.

"In our last round, we had 35 nonprofits that applied and received grants, and that's in one year," Gonzalez said. "In that 25-year time period we probably had more than 100 nonprofits that have benefited from the generous gifts to the Osceola County Community Foundation.

"I think this foundation is fantastic at really getting to know the needs of the community. It tries to find out what it is that's missing and tries to take a role in it. We look for different roles in the community and ask how we can bring people together by helping. This is one county where I can truly say the people care about each other and they want to see a difference made. They realize that's not something that can happen overnight, but something that we all need to take steps to move in the right direction."

Often, the OCCF donations provide unique opportunities which could not have occurred without its grant funding. For example, Gonzalez said the OCCF partnered with the Wexford-Missaukee Intermediate School District's Great Start Program to implement Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which gives free books to children.

"We really helped in the area of literacy to give kids something they might not have gotten," Gonzalez added.

In addition to new opportunities, the grants from the OCCF allow groups and organizations to increase and improve their programs, amenities and activities. Rose Lake Youth Camp and the Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center are two beneficiaries which have received the most funds over the years for scholarship opportunities, building facilities and more.

"Spectrum Health Reed City Hospital's Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center has been very fortunate over the years to receive donations from the Osceola County Community Foundation," said Irene Balowski, director of Reed City Hospital's cancer services. "They were instrumental in the capital campaign and helped bring a state-of-the-art cancer center to Reed City, and for this we are very grateful."

To help encourage donations, OCCF members host a popular annual event featuring dinner and silent and live auctions. Proceeds benefit the foundation and are used to provide local grants. This year, the auction will take place on Thursday, May 5, at the Osceola County 4-H FFA Fairgrounds' community building. Gonzalez said organizers are hoping to freshen up the event and offer more unique items to attract a wider range of patrons.

"We're looking to make it a little more interactive and we're also looking for it to have a theme this year," she added. "We're thinking of maybe a 'carnival in the county' theme. We're trying to change it up to meet the needs of the people who said it's the same thing every year, but still keep it as the traditional event where you know you can go, have a good time, see friends and give to a good cause that benefits the entire community."

Other events later in the year may be in the works as well, Gonzalez said.

As the foundation continues in the future, she believes it will become more strategic working on areas like bringing down poverty rates and increasing education opportunities.

"Moving our dollars, moving in the way we do grants, and moving in the way we convene with other people will help us move things in the right direction — whether that's healthcare needs, poverty, education or whatever it is," Gonzalez added. "We're going through a community needs assessment this year with Lake County, Mecosta County and Newaygo County, to understand more about the community from a resident's standpoint so they can tell us what their needs are. We can assume, but we don't know exactly what the general public thinks the needs are.

"We're looking forward to this year and the needs assessment. Things might look a little bit different for us, but don't be afraid, we're not changing. We're still here to serve the community and make sure the connections are being made. We want to be very intentional about how that's happening and that the dollars are being spent the way they should be."