Wyoming Valley-based program to give food to low-income children wins $20,000 grant

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By Mark Guydish – mguydish@timesleader.com

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Gretchen Hunt, from the Commission on Economic Opportunity, gives a two-minute speech about the CEO’s proposed “Food 4 Kids Weekends Backpack Program” during Thursday’s Millennium Circle luncheon. The program received the most votes among five presented to Circle members during the event, winning a $20,000 grant. Aimee Dilger | Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE — Commission on Economic Opportunity’s Gretchen Hunt didn’t trash talk the four organizations that lost in Thursday’s competition for a Millennium Foundation grant. “They are all worthy causes,” she said.

And she didn’t claim to have been more persuasive than the others during the two minutes each had to pitch their requests at a forum at Genetti’s.

No, she figured numbers spoke for themselves when it came time for the Millennium Circle members to vote on which cause would get $20,000.

“The fact is that nearly 16,000 children in Luzerne County are struggling with hunger,” Hunt said after learning the Commission on Economic Opportunity had won the grant for its proposed “Food 4 Kids Weekends Backpack” program. “That’s nearly one in four children. It’s not a fact that’s easy to ignore.”

Hunt is the nutrition programs and resource development director for CEO. She was the last of five people representing different organizations to speak during the Millennium Circle event, each given two minutes to persuade those present that their idea should get the money.

The CEO program will use the $20,000 for transportation and other program costs in launching the new initiative, which will provide food to low-income students in school for the weekends, holidays and extended breaks. The theory is that they already can get federally subsidized meals during the week at school, but are on their own Saturdays and Sundays.
The students — and how much food they get — will be decided by working with the school district officials, Hunt said. The cost isn’t in acquiring edibles because that is all donated; it’s in transporting the goods, both from donor to CEO and from CEO to schools.
There will be some administrative costs in setting up the program, but once established it should become part of CEO’s annual effort and not require any special fundraising, she added, making it sustainable once the grant expires — one of the things voters consider in choosing a grant winner.

Established in 2001 by the Luzerne Foundation, the Circle has handed out $272,000 in grants.
The money comes from the investment return on the $2,000 it costs to become a member, Luzerne Foundation CEO Charles Barber explained. Members annually nominate a program or organization for a grant, a committee winnows it down to handful of finalists, and after they pitch their program in print and at the luncheon, members vote to determine the recipient.

  • This year there were 36 nominations and five finalists. The other four:
  • Dress for Success sought money for the Set for Success program that helps unemployed women learn skills needed to get a job;
  • The Luzerne County Child Advocacy Center wanted the grant to provide medical and wellness exams to abused children;
  • The Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic sought funds to expand its musical outreach program;
  • The Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business & Industry looked to pay for an updated plan on how best to preserve and re-purpose the shuttered Irem Temple in Wilkes-Barre.

Local businessman, arts supporter and mayor of Bear Creek Village Walter Mitchell said he’s been a member of the circle since the beginning, and that he supports it because it is “unique” in allowing the donors to become members who then directly control who gets grants. Asked which program he voted to fund he demurred. “It’s a secret ballot.”

Wilkes-Barre City Council candidate and former Luzerne County Historical Society Executive Director Tony Brooks didn’t hide his preference. “I voted for the Irem Temple. I’m a big supporter of preserving the Irem.”

A member since 2006, Brooks said the Circle is a great idea in part because the $2,000 membership can be paid over 10 years. “That’s $200 a year. That’s about $17 a month,” he said. “The great thing about it is that any person can be a philanthropist.”

The Luzerne Foundation
The Luzerne Foundation
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