Do you remember Bill Somerville? He was the founder of the Peninsula Community Foundation of San Mateo County decades ago. He and his successor, Sterling Speirn, made the foundation one of the largest community foundations in the country. Now under new leadership, San Mateo County’s foundation has merged with Santa Clara County’s into the mega Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Bill contacted me after he read my recent column, "Is it still a community foundation?” where I raised some concerns about the new philanthropy’s focus on larger and fewer grants. (Unfortunately, the city of San Mateo has adopted a similar policy for its community development block grants. The city only funded four organizations last year. In the past many more have benefited from these federal funds). That means many smaller community-sized organizations will not be funded and the small discretionary grants which the former Peninsula Community Foundation provided are unavailable. Unless, that is, you are dealing with a maverick grant maker.
Bill Somerville is that maverick. He offered to show me some extraordinary programs in Redwood City he was supporting with his new foundation, Philanthropic Ventures (PVF), and incidentally to demonstrate how small can sometimes be big.
The first stop was at St. Francis Center in Redwood City. Sister Christina Heitsley is in charge of a very low-income housing program for 24 families (St. Clare) and Holy Family School, a K-5th grade school for 12 students. The center is a mini-Samaritan House and also provides food and clothing for neighborhood residents, the homeless and recent immigrants. The St. Francis Center is in the midst of building a new complex in the same, formerly drug-infested, neighborhood which will include the food, clothing and school program in addition to housing up to 17 members of three families. I was impressed when Sister Christina said the new building was being built to high green standards as an example to the children and the neighbors. The school program is somewhat unique. The 12 children accepted are selected from the poorest immigrant families. Six boys and six girls will remain with the same teacher from kindergarten through fifth grade. There is no charge except for a commitment that the parent must show up once a week to learn English and how to use a computer and receive religious training. Parents, usually mothers, are also expected to volunteer in the classroom. The food and clothing program are manned by volunteers. This little oasis for the poor and needy is the primary source of clothing for many families and provides about 18,000 bags of clothing each year. It also offers free laundry and shower services. Somerville trusts Sister Christina and is thrilled with her efforts. Philanthropic Ventures provides continuing support of Holy Family School at about $60,000 per year.
Next we visited with Larry Purcell at a local Catholic Worker House. Purcell, a former priest who is married to the sister of U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Atherton, explained that the home for troubled teenagers is not the typical nonprofit organization. They are not a 501 (c),( a tax deductible nonprofit). No one is charged anything at the house and no one is paid for living and working there. The single-family house is home to about four troubled teens. They and others who have lived at this house in past years come from hospitals, jails and homes that are falling apart. The goal is to simulate a family (which many of these kids have never experienced) and care for them as a family. Food is donated and if a teen needs to see a dentist or in one case, a young man needed a physical to be on the high school team, Purcell calls his vast network of friendly professionals to get the job done free. An informal group of lawyers, who call themselves "The Good Guys” will pay the bill at Costco when Purcell needs to stock up on big food items. Purcell’s group also distributes food and clothing to neighbors in need. Funding comes from small groups, individuals, and one foundation. Somerville also has trust in Purcell and the Catholic Worker House program. There are 150 in the country. In San Mateo County, they are located in Redwood City, San Bruno and Half Moon Bay.
The Annual Report for PVF explains "We don’t believe that the most creative — or most prudent — philanthropy is helped by complex forms or long waits. So we inaugurated the idea of immediate response grants, giving money in a 48-hour turnaround.” The foundation is comparatively small (only three staff members) and many of its grants are also small. But the impact is big. It’s great to have Bill Somerville back in town. He is thinking of moving his current office in Oakland to San Mateo County where so many of his good deeds are on display. I hope the Silicon Valley Foundation and the cities will continue to support and expand the activities of our exemplary heavy hitter nonprofits, Samaritan House, the Boys and Girls Club and the Human Investment Project. But there is also a need for small community efforts which have many ripple effects and a philanthropy which is willing to take a few risks.
It’s in the genes. Andrew Byrnes, chair of the San Mateo Democratic Party, has a father who is also deeply involved in politics. Larry Byrnes is currently running for Congress in Florida’s 14th District against Republican incumbent Connie Mack who is the new husband of Congresswoman Mary Bono. Byrnes senior is also somewhat of a celebrity. He has been nominated to participate in Democracy for America’s All-Star challenge — an online popularity contest.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.