Crook County Foundation has endured and thrived for 20 years, providing the community support for leadership, community vitality, education and arts

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Picnic in the Park has become a popular attraction that Crook County Foundation created to support the arts.

To hear Scott Cooper describe it, the April 29, 1998, meeting of local minds that birthed the Crook County Foundation was born out of a sense of necessity.

"We were looking at the fact that there were large-dollar grants coming out of organizations like Oregon Community Foundation or Meyer Memorial Trust, and those dollars were flowing to various organizations around Oregon in order to do community building," he recalls.

At the time, Cooper helmed the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce as its executive director. His viewpoint, and one he shared with people like Crook County School District Superintendent Bruce Anderson, Prineville City Councilor Paul Capell, County Judge Fred Rogers, and Parks and Rec Director Gary Ward, was the community was missing out.

"We didn't have a vehicle in Central Oregon to accept them. The only way a 501c3 organization can give money is by passing it through another 501c3, and we didn't have one," Cooper recalls. "We wanted to bring some community enhancing work around leadership development and education, and we didn't have any way to get the money here. What do we do?"

As that group of local leaders, along with Chamber members Sally Goodman, Gevin Brown, Larry Smith and Bobbi Young, gathered at Sandwich Factory that day, they started brainstorming.

"Everybody came to the table and said let's create an organization that can serve all of our needs and go after some of these dollars in order to bring opportunities to Crook County citizens," Cooper said.

The group didn't necessarily intend to create what Crook County Foundation would become. The original thought was to instead create a pass-through organization and handle the fiscal, administrative and reporting side of whatever grant money came in.

"But at that first meeting, it became clear that there was a really strong constituency for education — for scholarships in particular," Cooper recounted. "That was largely pushed by Bruce Anderson, Jerry Evans and Paul Rowan."

Evans had come out of Lake County, where he had become familiar with a program that gave out small scholarships to everybody who graduated from the local high school. He felt Crook County could replicate that program. Rowan, meanwhile, was involved in estate planning and wanted to invest money back into Crook County.

"So we started down the scholarship road with a little more activity as one of the initial projects," Cooper said. "Meanwhile, we saw Bend and Redmond had these leadership programs. We didn't have one for developing the pipeline for leadership programs. In fact, we were having trouble filling county court seats and city council seats. So we decided that we wanted to use some funding to launch our first leadership classes.

The new group targeted arts and culture as well. According to an extensive history of the organization compiled by board member Gary Goodman, the foundation's maiden arts project in 1999 was an organized fundraiser appearance of the Oregon Symphony at the Crook County High School auditorium.

"That was a standing-room-only, outstanding concert," Cooper gushed, "one of the best I have ever been to."

Goodman noted that during that same year, the IRS approved the organization's application for 501c3 status, under the name Central Oregon Education and Community Foundation. In 2001, after a change in bylaws that reduced the number of chamber representatives on the foundation from four to one, the organization was renamed the Crook County Education and Community Foundation. Another two years passed and in 2003, the organization was once again renamed, this time as Crook County Foundation.

The education and leadership programs blossomed in the early years of the foundation. Gail Merritt, a foundation board member who went on to chair the scholarship committee in 2010, notes that it has grown from a single scholarship endowment of $65,000 that Rowan established in 2001. More would follow, including the ones from J.B. Houston and the Lyle family, established in 2004, Lookout Mountain in 2007, and the Develop Educated Workers in Town (DEWIT) scholarship, established by Gary and Sally Goodman in 2011.

"In 2018, Crook County Foundation awarded 39 scholarships in the amount of $61,192," Merritt said. "Today, Crook County Foundation has 19 scholarships funds due to generous individuals and families."

Merritt attributes the growth of the program to "a caring community that believes in our young people."

"They recognize that education is a tool for successful citizens," she continued. "It is exciting to help high school, college, adult and nontraditional students seeking their dreams."

Kristi Steber was another board member who initially worked on the scholarship program as well as the leadership program during its early days. She was recruited in 2002 by Linda Shelk, who chaired the leadership committee, and Molly Kee, who chaired the scholarship committee.

"They both asked me to serve," she recalls. "I was working with ASPIRE at the high school, so it was a natural fit with scholarships."

In addition, Steber worked with her friend Shelk on different leadership projects.

"The leadership program evolved and changed," Steber recalls. "We went from putting on the program ourselves to having COCC do it for a couple years. Then finally, we were able to get The Ford Family Foundation to come in with their leadership program, which was fantastic."

Steber joined the board in 2004 and remembers that at that time, it was much more of a working board than it is today.

"We had some staff, but it was really limited — five or 10 hours (per week) maybe — and it was mostly for the administrative part," she recalls. "All of the board members had committee assignments and took roles."

It didn't take long for Steber to ascend the ranks, becoming vice president and then president of the board less than two years after joining. Then, when the executive director position opened in 2007, she filled the role. She would keep it until 2014, the longest time any person has held the job.

During her tenure, the foundation's leadership and scholarship programs continued to flourish, as did its arts and culture program, which brought to the community appearances by pianist Michael Allen Harrison, and the highly popular Picnic in the Park summer concert series, launched in 2004. The foundation also started the "What's Brewing?" community forum in 2010.

"It has always been growing and transitioning," Steber said of the executive director role, noting that she went from working about 10 hours a week to 20 as the organization grew.

As the foundation turns 20, Brandi Ebner now fills the executive director role, and she and her board members are looking to the future.

"Our board is taking a look at where we have come from, why we started and what our role is now. What does the community need from a group like the foundation?" Ebner said. "We are going to be using that to build our future programming."

Ebner went on to stress that the effort will not change the primary pillars of the organization — leadership and community vitality, education, and arts and culture.

"It is a question of what we do under each one," she said.

Steber, who briefly stepped away from the foundation after her 2014 stint as executive director ended and recently returned as a board member, is eager to see what direction the foundation takes and what it accomplishes in the future.

"It has always been responsive to the community and a value to the community," she said. "I hope it keeps doing that because that is where our strength is."

Meanwhile, Cooper, whose involvement with the foundation he helped launch ended long ago, says the organization has far exceeded what anybody at that initial meeting could have imagined.

"I think there was a lot of doubt around the table initially as to whether we could get the scholarship program off the ground. That sounded so pie-in-the-sky at the time," he admits.

But thanks to a belief that more was out there for Crook County, local leaders were enabled to find what Cooper now calls an easy solution in forming the foundation.

"A whole lot of thinking and work was put together by a lot of people who cared about Prineville's future and wanted to make Prineville more than it was," he concluded.

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