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Woodbury Community Foundation is the connector

A plaque on the Woodbury Community Theatre's grand piano recognizes the donation that started Friends of Woodbury. (Bulletin photo by Mathias Baden)1 / 3
Woodbury Community Foundation member Dixie Ewing sits at the grand piano -- once donated for use in the city's Central Park. It started with the piano, but we’ve got great things ahead,” Ewing said of the Foundation. (Bulletin photo by Mathias Baden)2 / 3
Woodbury Community Foundation member Dixie Ewing sits at the grand piano -- once donated for use in the city's Central Park. It started with the piano, but we’ve got great things ahead,” Ewing said of the Foundation. (Bulletin photo by Mathias Baden)3 / 3

Fifty years ago, upon the incorporation of the Village of Woodbury in 1967, residents were farmers—wonderful, hardworking servant-leaders who later accepted growth graciously, Woodbury Community Foundation board member Dixie Ewing said.

Orville Bielenberg, the town's first mayor, provided the city with a 20-year plan though never thinking that Woodbury would be like today, said Ewing, a real estate agent. Who could have imagined in the 1960s a township of 2,500 ready by the 2030 to double in population for its fifth time?

Like the Woodbury Community Club of the Woodbury Township days, the Woodbury Community Foundation came about for the sole purpose of helping people connect to get things done. Where the Community Club lived by the motto "We are laborers together," the Foundation seeks to facilitate the sustainability of community engagement initiatives by volunteers working for a common good.

It all began for the modernday group of community boosters in 2003, during Central Park's infancy.

The 2000s were a financially conservative time for the growing city, Ewing said. During Bill Hargis' time as mayor, when something was needed that the city couldn't afford, or wouldn't because it possibly appeared frivolous, Hargis would call on those who felt strongly about the issue.

Discussion had turned to Woodbury Parks and Recreation's wish that the new Central Park have a grand piano.

Seven people who cared—Jean Brown, Ewing, George Gossman, Hargis, Lynne Menozzi, Bruce Soma and Dick Stafford—got involved and became the founding members of the Friends of Woodbury in 2003. Their first project: fund raising for a $12,000 K. Kawai grand piano to be donated to the city in 2004 and used during weddings, recitals, galas and performances at its indoor park. The city received the gift and paid for its tuning.

"It's quite a masterpiece," Ewing said of the piano.

Where's the piano now?

The simple idea of family and friends gathering together around the piano resulted in a decade of enjoyment for Woodbury, Ewing said.

But by 2013, as other sources of music became popular at weddings, the piano was no longer needed for events hosted by Parks and Recreation.

Enter Michelle Witte and the Merrill Community Arts Center.

They would use a piano, Witte told Woodbury Community Foundation members. So, with the consent of each donor, the hand-me-down piano found a new home, Ewing said.

Frequently used for receptions and small-scale events, the grand piano will make its next on-stage appearance, in "Tony and Tina's Wedding" this fall, Witte said. "Pianos bring people together. It's a beloved gem here."

The effort to gift a piano for Central Park and later re-gift it to an organization that would use it proudly lacked governmental red tape, and the process has been duplicated many times since 2005, when the Friends of Woodbury morphed into a nonprofit organization called the Woodbury Community Foundation.

The Foundation exists most simply to make Woodbury a better place, Ewing said. "It's unique."

It has been pulling together quality organizations—churches, YMCA, Scout troops, the city, Woodbury Area Chamber of Commerce, and other nonprofits—that offered great things but also appreciated not working as silos all the time, Ewing said. The Foundation once drew praise for its burgeoning programs for veterans returning from deployment, as well as its Habitat for Humanity prowess. The organization has been a food shelf proponent, and previously headed up Leadership Forum of area businesses.

The Foundation is partnering with the city of Woodbury to put on the city's 50th anniversary event in March, the Foundation will add an element of historic celebration to its Chef Fest next fall, and the Foundation wants to encourage other organizations to celebrate throughout the year, as well.

Foundation members believe that they can do more once they develop partnerships between local organizations. Partnerships have contributed to the Foundation prospering.

"We've gone from little to bigger," Ewing said.

Evolution of initiatives

Over the years, the Woodbury Community Foundation's focus has evolved, executive director Jeffrey Prottas said.

"There are needs in Woodbury," Dick Hanson, a former 3Mer who served the maximum nine years on the Foundation board. "Woodbury's a wonderful place, that's why we all live here, and we love to talk about all the great things in Woodbury, but needs can be overlooked.

"We're all about promoting volunteerism. Our cause is to make Woodbury a better place."

The Foundation operates based on five strategic priorities—philanthropy, leadership, supporting one another, enhancing the effectiveness of organizations, and identifying tomorrow's needs today.

To that end, the Foundation's projects include:

• Citizens' Academy—Participants in a popular annual seminar series learn about the inner workings of the community. The Citizens' Academy was created with new residents in mind, but even former city council members and former county commissioners have participated in hopes of benefiting from a refresher course. Foundation members hope alumni of the Citizens' Academy become the city's volunteer force, Ewing said.

• Youth Leadership Development Program—High school juniors and seniors embark on six weeks of workshops about service learning, leadership development and social entrepreneurship.

• Business Education Partnership—District 833 and the Woodbury Area Chamber of Commerce have partnered with the Foundation to bring businesspeople into schools to help students with mock job interviews and more.

• Woodbury THRIVES—Financial health, mental health, faith, physical workouts and more concerns of local residents are a major initiative in Woodbury, Ewing said. The goal is to make Woodbury a healthy place to live. On Thursday, the Foundation's Community Action Task Force will meet to narrow its priorities based on citizen feedback and begin the action plans for the initiative.

• Chef Fest—The Foundation holds an annual fundraiser, a signature event that Ewing predicted will grow to involve the tasting of fine food from as many as 20 chefs in the near future.

"The projects that we do aren't the focus," Prottas said. "They're the outcome."

Future of the Foundation

Prottas said the future of the Woodbury Community Foundation will be in the area of Legacy Funds, which connect people with their passions in the long term. The Foundation can host the funds, make sure money is used for its intended purpose, and allow organizations like a food shelf or heritage society to focus on being the best nonprofit they can be, Prottas said.

Hanson cited three examples of Legacy Funds assisted by the Foundation:

• Bruce Stafford Public Safety Appreciation Legacy Fund—Donna Stafford initiated Koins for K9s to fund raise toward an endowment for the Woodbury Public Safety K9 program.

• Miller Barn—Woodbury Heritage Society is raising $550,000 for restoration and preservation of a red barn along Valley Creek Road. Inez Oehlke advocated for the project, and wanted to leave it as her legacy before she died in September. The organization is running a capital campaign, as well as working on building an endowment.

• Horizon Funds for Innovation and Entrepreneurship—Hanson's donation started the Horizon Funds, a hybrid fund—both capital funds and an endowment—supported by 3M and targeted at positioning the Foundation as a pioneer leader in innovating in Woodbury and showing how the Foundation is making a difference. By commissioning surveys from Wilder Research, the Foundation can use an "impact measurement feature" to show the results of its good work, Hanson said. "That fits my vision." The endowment would sustain and recognize entrepreneurship in Woodbury.

Creating a Legacy Fund is an investment in the community, Hanson said.

Woodbury Community Foundation is priming itself for long-term success. Its proponents want the organization to be a "catalyst" for positive change in Woodbury, happy to temporarily fill a gap and then hand off a program to a partnering organization, Prottas said.

People with an idea for how to better Woodbury should contact the Foundation, Hanson said. The Foundation is "totally inclusive," he added. "We've got all kinds of options for how people can create their legacy."

The Foundation has transitioned from being a small group of friends getting things done, to being Woodbury's "connector," Hanson and Prottas said.

Ewing pointed to the late Dick Stafford, a founding member, as one of the instrumental voices in the Foundation's inception.

"His dream was that every citizen would be involved in the Woodbury Community Foundation," she said. "Our outreach is big. It started with the piano, but we've got great things ahead."

To start a Legacy Fund, go to woodburyfoundation.org/donate/legacy-giving. Other donations can be made directly to Woodbury Community Foundation at woodburyfoundation.org/donate. Volunteers can get connected at woodburyfoundation.org/volunteer.

For more information, contact Woodbury Community Foundation at (651) 788-6586 or wcf@WoodburyFoundation.org.

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