Gary resident Dereeka Rollins, a new mom who works for Gary’s Redevelopment Department, says she wants to see “businesses in Gary grow and offer more employment. So many people here are not employed.” To help achieve that goal, she’s working on a project with other residents to support a business incubator/co-working space for people in the city’s Miller Beach community. Known as The Stage, this repurposed building is bringing business to The Steel City.
Gretchen Sipp, another Gary resident, is The Stage Manager at the space. "I am a die-hard Gary citizen. I grew up in Gary. I've been in Gary for 30 years. It is my home. I've left, I've come back. I've left, I've come back. This is where I'm planted. So, for me, I want to see the true essence of what a Gary citizen looks like," says Sipp, adding, "…I think we are on the verge of something big."
Their effort is one of many in northwest Indiana to revitalize communities through the input and collaboration of local organizations and people who work and live there. For 25 years, the Legacy Foundation, which is based in Merrillville has been supporting this work through a wide variety of grants for programs and initiatives in Lake County communities. (The county is the second largest in the state). In the course of a year, the foundation typically gives out more than $800,000 in scholarships and between $1.3 and $1.8 million in grants, which range from about $2,000 to $25,000.
The foundation is not locked in to funding one particular issue but responds to community needs in a wide variety of areas. For example, the foundation funds a first of its kind medical-legal partnership for northwest Indiana between Indiana Legal Services and HealthLinc, which provides no-cost, civil legal aid to HealthLinc patients who are in need of legal services for issues related to their health. In Hammond, a Legacy Foundation grant expanded a youth career program to include training and internships in high-growth industries such as healthcare, IT and construction. In Gary, the foundation supported the state’s second fully ADA compliant canoe and kayak launch at Marquette Park. The Legacy Foundation donated $25,000 to help construct the launch, which provides access to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
“The Legacy Foundation has focused on building philanthropy in Lake County,” says foundation president Carolyn Saxton. “What we’ve seen is that community foundations can promote philanthropy where they are located and make a difference that can hopefully be sustained over time.”
The foundation’s work is about more than making individual grants. The Legacy Foundation also encourages Lake County residents to consider how they might be more philanthropic in their long-term estate planning. As a result, over 300 charitable funds have been established that are financially managed by Legacy and support the charitable interests of individuals and organizations. This type of long-term philanthropy provides support for charitable projects identified by the donors not only for today but for years to come.
Legacy manages and promotes the local Donor Advised Fund for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funds a wide range of organizations and projects in Gary.
The foundation serves as a resource center to nonprofits, providing training for staff and board members on fundraising, organizational issues and other topics. In addition, the foundation offers scholarships to Lake County students as motivation to graduate high school and complete college.
In recent years, the foundation has been more proactive about how it reaches area communities. One prominent example is its Neighborhood Spotlight program, which was created in 2013. Through this program, residents from Hobart, Griffith, and Gary’s Miller Beach and Emerson communities identify and address key issues. “People in these communities determine what their priorities are,” says Saxton. “The Spotlight program is a catalyst that encourages community involvement and action.”
The foundation funds a “community builder” in each neighborhood – a person whose job is to engage residents in this process. (It’s similar, Saxton says, to what community organizers do.) “The idea is to get existing stakeholders – people who live here – at the table,” says Jessie Renslow, community builder for the program in Miller Beach, where issues identified by residents have included transportation, jobs, education and economic development. Renslow, who grew up in Gary, describes herself as a “multi generation Gary-ite” who lived in California before moving back to the area.
Renslow says, “The Legacy Foundation realized the importance of doing a community plan in our communities. When you have a community choose attainable goals, it can happen. People really buy into the process.”
Brenda Burch has been a community builder for the program in Gary’s Emerson community. The Gary native and former pastor says the Spotlight program supported a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of Emerson. One major priority identified by residents, she says, is revitalizing Emerson School, which was closed in 2008 and, she says, could be reopened as a community center.
Meanwhile, Gary resident Zully Alvarado says the new canoe and kayak launch in Marquette Park reflects the community’s priorities – and is already affecting people on a personal level.
Alvarado has been an accessibility issues advocate for many years and uses a wheelchair. “I love what we’ve been able to do,” she says. “As a woman who is a wheelchair user, I never imagined that this would be available to me. People see me first as a paddler, not just as someone who’s in a chair.”
“The Neighborhood Spotlight program,” she adds, “is a model we can showcase for other communities.”
For more about the Legacy Foundation, click here.