A few months ago, local attorney Joe Robb crossed the street to pay me a visit. He asked a simple question about our Special Projects grant funding. In essence, he wanted to know what it was, and whether it still existed.

I delighted at this conversation. Not just because I like Joe personally and enjoy his perspective on life, but because Special Projects is one of my favorite parts of this job.

Unfortunately, with lagging campaigns in 2016 and 2017, the board suspended the program to preserve campaign funds for Partner Organizations and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

I missed it, though, because it gave our organization the chance to get involved in an even wider variety of local initiatives. Special Projects grants are limited to a one-time award per program or project, with a maximum funding of $1,000. In the past, Special Projects grants brought training for suicide prevention, and motivational speakers for persons living with disabilities. The grants provided a water line for the Giving Garden, and a food-packaging event at Bethel College, both supplying local food pantries. One of my personal favorites was a grant to purchase sound equipment for the newly constructed Meeting House for youth in Sedgwick.

A few months after that first visit, Joe returned to my office. This time he handed me a letter and donation of $5,000 from the R. Michael Rhoades Foundation, designated for Special Projects grants in 2019.

The Harvey County United Way board of directors recently made an initial round of Special Projects funding to four organizations. True to past years, the awards represent a wide variety of local initiatives.

Community Playschool, located at Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton, provides a preschool experience for children who, because of financial or other special reasons, would not have the opportunity to attend another preschool program. Created by local Mennonite churches in 1966, Community Playschool provides much-needed early education for children ages 2 ½ to 5. Their longevity has created a trust in families, now with second and third generations of children attending as their parents and grandparents once did.

As a part of the larger revitalization project of the playground, Community Playschool received Special Projects grant funding to construct a platform to use as a stage, an outdoor classroom or a place for spontaneous dramatic play. The 40 children will return in the fall, with likely more than a few “What’s that?” questions for teachers to answer.

EmberHope Youthville is a familiar fixture in the Newton community. For many years, they provided residential services for youth on the large campus on west Broadway. Due to changes in state foster care funding, they had relocated their corporate offices to Wichita for a few years. Last year, they returned to the campus, and provide care for 48 girls on site ages 10 to 18.

Taking an active approach to provide effective support and treatment of at-risk children, EmberHope received a Special Projects grant to help construct a yoga studio for use by the residential care clients. Incorporation of exercise and calming activities will help promote emotional well-being and mental functioning. It also offers an outlet for residents, thereby reducing instances of negative behavior (such as runaway events) and limiting the consequential drain on public resources (law enforcement, EMS, etc).

Hesston Public Library serves as a vital hub for community connections, information and resources in the town of 3,800 people. The library is bright and welcoming, with a coffee pot to encourage visitors to stay and fishing poles to check out for an adventure. From news stories, it would appear the Hesston Library is typically on the leading edge of technology and services all with Hesston residents front of mind.

In the middle of a major digitizing effort, the library received Special Projects funding to provide a stipend for the volunteer conducting the work. The history will be accessible to all patrons visiting virtually or in person. On average 140 people visit the library daily, and the web page views surpass 200 times monthly.

Finally, the Kansas Learning Center for Health in Halstead provides health education to thousands of area children each year. Many school districts rely on them to provide puberty and human reproduction programming (totaling 5,000 children), which includes instruction on the need for personal hygiene items.

Unfortunately, in recent years more children express concern over their caregivers’ inability to provide the items. A Special Projects grant will provide basic hygiene kits for 400 Harvey County students attending the educational programming.

In the next year, I look forward to visiting the playground and yoga studio in person, perusing the digitized history on the web, and hearing stories of children taking home their hygiene kits. Thank you, Mr. Rhoades, for your Foundation and the impact made on the community. Your legacy lives on.

— Tina Payne is the director of Harvey County United Way.