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Small gifts a godsend for people in crisis

At Crossroads Community Foundation, donors make a big difference

F or one woman, a $172 check meant the chance to start a new life. For an area father, a taxi voucher helped stave off a potential return trip to jail. And for an area homeless shelter, a $1,000 grant allowed the purchase of an industrial-sized refrigerator.

Nonprofits depend on grants to fulfill their missions, so conventional wisdom would suggest that the more zeroes in the grant, the better.

But MetroWest Matters, a new program of the Natick-based Crossroads Community Foundation, is testing the idea that a little can go a long way. The program awards $1,000 each week to a nonprofit agency in the western suburbs.

For the agencies, many of which have annual budgets exceeding $1 million, the money might seem like a pittance. But used creatively, the foundation says, the grants can fill significant gaps.

Employment Options Inc., a Marlborough-based agency that provides services for low-income and mentally ill clients and their families, is in the middle of a $600,000, 2 1/2-year grant from AstraZeneca to support families dealing with mental illness. In the process of working with such families, the agency discovered a nagging need: transportation.

"I can't tell you the stresses that puts on people's lives," said Toni Wolf, executive director of Employment Options. "For those of us who have a car and turn the key, we take it for granted. There's so little accessible transportation in this area."

Wolf described one case in which a father reunited with his family after being released from jail. When the family's car broke down, he didn't have any way to get to his probation officer, as required under the terms of his release.

"They panicked," Wolf said. "He was somebody trying to improve his life."

In another case, a mother did not have transportation to see her daughter, who was staying in a residential mental health facility.

"It gave the impression that this mom did not care about the child," Wolf said. State social service authorities "were questioning the validity of the parent," she said, "but it was about transportation. There was no resource for this parent to be able to get there."

In both cases, the agency provided taxi vouchers from a fund it set up with a $1,000 MetroWest Matters grant, an essential supplement to the much larger AstraZeneca grant.

While $1,000 is not a lot of money, Wolf said Employment Options is trying to make it last. "It hasn't run out yet," she said. "We're very careful in what we're using it for."

The MetroWest Matters program is paid for by one of about 50 philanthropic funds administered by the Crossroads Community Foundation.

Former TJX Cos. chief executive Ted English, now chief executive of Bob's Discount Furniture, and his family provided the $1.1 million endowment that funds the $1,000-a-week grants.

The English Family Fund is an example of what the foundation calls a donor-advised fund. With a donation of at least $10,000, Crossroads will administer a donor's fund as that donor directs. It gives donors a method of controlling how their contributions are spent without having to worry about the overhead costs of establishing their own foundations.

Established in 1996, the foundation's major challenge has been making potential donors aware that poverty, hunger, mental illness, substance abuse, and other family crises do exist in the suburbs.

"People don't realize that even in communities like Wellesley there are needs," said Judy Salerno, coexecutive director of the group.

The foundation, which is based in Natick, serves 29 towns west of Boston, between Route 128 and Interstate 495.

"There are many donors who want control over where their money is being spent and the types of gifts that they're making," Salerno said. "The community foundation gives them the opportunity to do that."

The foundation has grown to the point that it provides between $300,000 and $400,000 in annual grants and boasts total assets of nearly $10 million.

For the MetroWest Matters program, Crossroads invests the endowment, reviews grant applications, and writes the checks, while the English family makes the final decisions about recipients, Salerno said.

Paul G. Schervish, director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, said that the small-grant program would be helpful for area nonprofits.

"Small amounts can do a lot for organizations that have a specific need and can advance their work with less than a huge contribution," he said. "All philanthropy, at its best, is directed toward the needs of the people."

The needs met by the MetroWest Matters program, which is nearing the end of its first year, have been varied.

Pathways Family Shelter, a Framingham homeless shelter operated by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, had run out of room in its aging refrigerator for the 14 families it serves.

"Our kitchen is in need of a lot of work," said Marita Boyd, an official at the shelter.

With the MetroWest Matters grant, combined with a second grant from Wal-Mart, the shelter bought an industrial-size refrigerator.

Waltham's domestic violence outreach agency, REACH, used a MetroWest Matters grant for its Independence Fund.

In June, a mother who had successfully completed a manicurist-training program found herself unable to pay for the state licensing exam.

The fund paid the $172 cost; she passed the test and was able to begin her career.

Being able to meet needs like that, which have a small cash value but bring a huge return to an individual family, is very satisfying for the nonprofits that serve these clients.

"We're dealing with mental health clients, so it doesn't take a whole lot of stresses to really change the family dynamic," said Wolf, of Employment Options. "Anything that can give you the flexibility to be able to support your clientele is enormous."

John C. Drake can be reached at 508-820-4229 or