O’Neill fund invests in quality of life today with a focus on the future

Philanthropy here is playing a key role in creating a higher quality of life and opportunities for young people in a growing, dynamic community. However, the face of philanthropy is often humble and unassuming.

Mary and Margaret Linhart worked at the post office in tiny Verdel most of their lives. In 2008, when Mary Linhart of O’Neill died, few people were aware she and her late sister, Margaret, held a small fortune that could change the lives of high school students in North Central Nebraska for years to come. An endowment Mary created through her handwritten will now totals more than $1.1 million.

Then there’s Helen Martens, who was an elementary school teacher in the O’Neill and Emmet school systems for 35 years and a substitute teacher for another 10 years. She believed every child should have an opportunity to learn about rural life.

So she organized the Shamrock Friends 4-H Club and the Boots & Saddle Club. When she died in 2010, she left of legacy gift now valued at $1.25 million. Her significant impact on young people in the O’Neill area will continue for generations.

And thanks to Rudy Elis, a bachelor farmer from Vedigre, an estate gift continues to grow and fuel economic progress in the Holt County and Norfolk areas.

Elis was always in uniform-a work shirt and overalls. He certainly didn’t look the part of community philanthropist, and he didn’t believe in handouts, but his estate gift for the O’Neill area, now valued at $1.9 million, has helped businesses grow and families to return to the O’Neill area for nearly a decade. And because his gift is endowed, $60,000 is available each year for Holt County Economic Development’s projects and programs to support growth in the area.

These individuals did not lead lavish lifestyles. They appreciated hard work, and each epitomized “the millionaire next door” who lives in hometowns served by the Nebraska Community Foundation’s network of affiliated funds. Each of these individuals created endowments through NCF within the last decade. Combined, the three endowments have reinvested $780,166 in grants, building a brighter future for O’Neill and the surrounding area.

Volunteers in O’Neill began building an unrestricted endowment for their community in 2004.

O’Neill Community Foundation Fund chairwoman Paula Havranek said she believes that philanthropic investments are an important factor in a formula for attracting people back to the area.

Havranek said she believes school enrollment is an indicator of success. In the public school, kindergarten and first grades now have four sections, with four teachers, compared to three just a couple years ago.

“Many of the young people moving into O’Neill decided to do so in order to raise their kids in a smaller community, close to family and friends,” she said.

Havranek said that attracting young people requires creating a quality of life that will allow them to return after pursuing an education or beginning a career. Grants made by the O’Neill Community Foundation Fund over the past 10 years reflect this commitment and have supported community improvements for all age groups.

Funding for the hospital, senior center, Community Center, and significant investment in O’Neill’s new extended campus for Northeast Community College are just a few examples.

The foundation fund also provided major support to Holt County Economic Development (HCED) during its early years of operation. This support, coupled with funding from Holt County’s eight municipalities, enabled HCED to open an office, hire its first director in 2007, and connect new and current business owners to a full array of professional resources.

The foundation fund pays special attention to supporting youth programs such as Girls on the Run, Developing Eagles afterschool program, and TeamMates. This past year, it joined with numerous community groups and donors to make a dream come true for the O’Neill FFA chapter-the construction of a greenhouse. The greenhouse is a hands-on teaching tool for agriculture, horticulture and business management.

High-impact grants are a priority for the O’Neill Community Foundation Fund. Havranek said that the foundation fund’s grantmaking philosophy has evolved. Instead of giving something to every organization that applies, grants are evaluated on how they fit with the fund’s mission.

Also, the fund no longer awards grants once a year. Rather, applications are accepted at any time. This allows it flexibility to address opportunities and needs in a more proactive way.

What’s next for the ambitious volunteers and donors who are responsible for so much of O’Neill’s success?

“We’re not stopping!” Havranek said. “We’re in the mode now. We’re going to keep visiting and talking to people, and keeping the unrestricted endowment in front of the community.”

The Linhart sisters, Helen Martens and Rudy Elis all understood the power of an endowment, and how giving back can create change long after one’s own lifetime. The O’Neill Community Foundation Fund is well-positioned to demonstrate how philanthropy can change people’s lives-for good.


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