For Good: Major grants invest in St. Pete projects designed to create healthy communities

South St. Petersburg entrepreneurs launching new businesses. A mobile community resource clinic that travels to impoverished neighborhoods by bus. An initiative that educates Pinellas County students about the benefits of staying active and eating healthy foods.

Those are just a few samples of dream projects that will soon be underway, thanks to $3.9 million in grants from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to 19 local organizations.

This is the inaugural wave of charitable giving by the foundation, which has an endowment of more than $150 million and is the largest grant making foundation in St. Petersburg. The foundation was formed three years ago when the not-for-profit Bayfront Medical Center was bought in a multi-hospital deal by the for-profit Community Health Systems Inc. chain.

Profits from that sale were mandated to fund a charitable foundation to continue with Bayfront’s mission. It settled on a range of social factors that impact health, including access to care, employment, education and income. The target: southern Pinellas County.

“It’s not something we intend to do alone,” says CEO Randy Russell, who was hired last year. “This is all about collaborative partnerships in order to bring about transformative outcomes in healthy equity.”

In a recent column, Russell summed it up this way.

“Alone -- we are a single hand clapping. Collectively -- we are an orchestra,” he wrote. “By gathering ourselves, and our efforts, to a shared purpose, we will arrive at a better, heftier and more sustainable transformation of both people and place. History shows this is not easy and requires practice together, building trust, support and comfort in the process.”

A new direction in giving

Even more important was the new direction taken by the foundation board. Historically, many grants are determined by “a traditional white guy’s business structure. It’s not what you know, but who you know,” Russell says. The model left little room for innovation and participation.

“The idea that power, wealth, privilege, race and gender drives where the money goes has been proven over and over again,” he says. “This time, we went to the people in the community, the same ones we want to reach, asking for their ideas and their input.”

From this year’s recipients, here are some of the areas that will be addressed with the grants: training and employment; focused populations like LBGTQ, youth at risk and the physically disabled; diet and nutrition; education; studies; and responses to listening sessions.

Getting selected for a grant -- which ranged from $50,000 to the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Centers to $495,151 to Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County -- was a months-long and arduous process. Russell says it began with “listening sessions” with residents and leaders in the targeted community to determine the area’s most pivotal needs and the barriers that got in the way. 

They had plenty to discuss. Safety issues. Transportation challenges. Low budgets or no budgets for needed programs. No safe place for recreation or exercise.

The next step was to invite the participants to submit concrete ideas on how to help people live healthier lives. The response was overwhelming. In all, representatives from 140 agencies came up with more than 200 ideas.

“The best ideas come right from the community. We can’t come at this presuming we have all the answers,” Russell says.

After a careful process of going through the submissions, 47 ideas from 39 agencies made the cut for the invitation to apply for a grant. Five nationally recognized expert reviewers did the evaluations, and along with input from the listening sessions, interviews and other criteria, the final recipients were selected.

Those agencies or nonprofits that were declined are invited to reapply again in the future and to keep the conversation going with the foundation’s staff.

Russell says they deliberately chose a “blind process” to make the decision.

“It had nothing to do with relationships with anyone on the board or staff,” he says. “It had to do with fairness, collaboration, inclusiveness, transparency. Those are factors that were so important to this process.”

Investing for the long haul

The Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corp. got a $217,866 grant to give “intense” support to 20 primarily low-income entrepreneurs to launch or grow their firms, says president and CEO Albert Lee. It will be funneled into the BBIC’s CATCH program, a 15-week session for 10 participants at a time, providing training, coaching, consulting and access to capital, if needed.

So why does a foundation dedicated to improving health in a community invest in business ventures?

“Because one of the biggest stress factors is finances,” Lee says. “If you have a low income or no income, that impacts every aspect of your life. If we can help them start a business and move them out of poverty, that is step toward a healthier life in all ways.”

Ultimately, a successful graduate will have the tools to create a business that will also provide employment to others in the community.

“We’re not talking about starting a major corporation that requires college degrees and specialized training. In the area we target, we need jobs that have low barriers of entry, such as janitorial service or lawn maintenance,” Lee says. “But we need steady jobs with salaries. This is a good way to get that going.”

The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County will funnel its grant money into two projects, says spokesperson Maggie Hall. One is the Community Resource Bus program -- run in partnership with the City of St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Police Department – that links residents to community services and resources.

“Think of it as an iPad on a bus,” she says. “We’ll be able to staff it with a community resource worker and recruit volunteers to help. For people who don’t have access to transportation, we come to them.”

Second, the grant will be used to conduct a large-scale survey that will create an overall picture of the health of people in Pinellas County. Hall says they will survey some 10,000 residents to collect data and determine the pockets of need.

“All of our projects are collaborative in nature,” she says. “And that’s a major goal of the foundation. This grant is what our department is all about -- forming partnerships and improving the health of our community.”

The lengthy process to choose the recipients was an eye-opening experience for Russell, a newcomer to the Tampa Bay area.

“It’s been gratifying to come to know so many worthwhile and well-meaning organizations,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s a little sad, because we’re so under-resourced here.”

He is confident the foundation’s grants will play a role in meeting many of those needs. However, he doesn’t expect any quick fixes.
“Ten years,” he says. “It will be about 10 years to see the results of these efforts made possible by the funding. This is a big and long galvanizing dance, and we’re here for the long haul to see it through.”

Follow this link to see: the complete list of grant recipients.

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a multimedia journalist and public speaker with extensive experience in print and broadcast media. She placed second in the nation behind a writer from Time magazine in the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association Supple Feature Religion Writer of the Year. Her “Keeping the Faith” segment on WFLA-TV was the country’s longest-running segment on faith and values among local affiliates. She’s a graduate of Central Michigan University, which inducted her in the school’s Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for her pioneer work in media convergence and investigative religion reporting. Michelle has won multiple awards for her work, including first-place honors in 2014 for column writing from the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and beat reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. She is also a two-time winner of the Supple Religion Reporter of the Year from the national Religion Newswriters Association. Michelle’s home and yard in the Ballast Point neighborhood in south Tampa are legendary for big gatherings and dinner parties. She finally realized her dream of getting a horse, and now has two Rocky Mountain mares, which she trail rides and trains every chance she gets. And she is a die-hard Tampa Bay Rays fan.   
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