You may not have noticed, but Community Foundation does good work

The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound celebrated its 20th birthday in grand style last week.

About 160 residents, many of them philanthropists, gathered at Indian Summer Golf & Country Club in Olympia for a luncheon that included words of inspiration from National Basketball Association legend Lenny Wilkens.

While Wilkens is well-known as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history and the coach that brought the one and only championship to the Seattle Sonics in 1979, the Community Foundation remains one of South Sound’s best-kept secrets.

Genuine philanthropists typically aren’t publicity hounds, so it comes as no surprise that this tax-exempt public charity, which works with donors on causes that make South Sound a better place, isn’t well-known.

Let me shine a little light on the good work of the Community Foundation.

Since 1989, individuals, families and corporations have used the Community Foundation to manage their endowment funds, support student scholarships, direct donations to specific charitable groups and organizations, and distribute grants to worthwhile causes in Mason, Thurston and Lewis counties.

In 2008, the Community Foundation distributed grants and scholarships totaling $812,246 to 86 recipients.

When the Rainier Food Bank needed a walk-in refrigerator and freezer to replace 13 energy-guzzling, old, family-sized refrigerators and freezers, it turned to the Community Foundation for a $7,500 grant.

“We needed something to hold more food,” Rainier Food Bank worker Jennifer Chapline told the luncheon audience. “Your donation has given our community hope.”

Senior Services for South Sound’s Meals on Wheels program hit a bump in the road last year too, when the freezer it uses to store food for some of the 500 elderly it serves conked out.

Thanks to a $3,200 grant from the Community Foundation, the freezer was replaced and weekend frozen meals delivered to seniors in need still are available, said Eileen McKenzie Sullivan, executive director of Senior Services for South Sound.

In many respects, the Community Foundation is like a savings account for worthy causes. It manages 80 distinct funds totaling about $4.34 million. Donors can specifically target their charitable-contribution goals or leave decisions in the hands of the foundation’s board of directors. And, just like any other nonprofit group, family or business with investments, the Community Foundation has been challenged by the recession.

“But our distributions to the community have not diminished,” foundation executive director Norma Schuiteman said.

Wilkens was the perfect keynote speaker for the Community Foundation’s 20th birthday bash. No stranger to philanthropy, Wilkens is the chairman of a Bellevue-based charitable foundation that bears his name. In the past 10 years, the Lenny Wilkens Foundation has raised more than $2 million, most of it to support the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle’s Central Area.

The clinic provides dental, medical and mental health services for children in need, specializing in care for children with chronic health conditions, including sickle-cell anemia, childhood obesity and asthma.

“That’s become my charity,” Wilkens said of the clinic for low-income families without health insurance. “At the clinic, the kids are treated like somebody.”

It was a pleasure to listen as Wilkens recounted his youthful days in Brooklyn, N.Y., honing his basketball skills on the playgrounds and in Boys Club, Catholic Youth Organization and Police Athletic League youth programs.

“I only played one half-year of high school basketball,” he said, to the surprise of many.

Ever notice how Wilkens stayed so cool and collected as both a player and a coach, amassing less than a handful of technical fouls in an NBA career that spanned five decades?

The reason can be traced, in part, to an experience he had in his first game as a professional with the St. Louis Hawks, playing the Boston Celtics and guarding the legendary Bob Cousy, who was in the last year of his career.

“I stole the ball from Cousy and the referee blows his whistle and calls a foul,” Wilkens said as the memory evoked a self-effacing smile. “I said, ‘That was no foul.’ The referee said, ‘You can’t take the ball from Bob Cousy.’”

“I learned right away not to mess with refs,” Wilkens added.

As I listened to Wilkens talk during the lunch Wednesday and in a smaller group setting earlier that day, I thought of my mother, who had a huge crush on Lenny Wilkens in his years as the Sonics coach. She died of cancer 12 years ago today.

Thanks to the Community Foundation event, I have a deeper appreciation of my mom’s attraction to this iconic Seattle sport figure.

John Dodge is a senior reporter and Sunday columnist for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or