Panel will seek input on top two issues

Affordable housing and family and children’s services were identified last month as local residents’ top concerns, and on Monday the Focus Centre County initiative will gather a group of representatives from those two fields to help decide which has the greatest need.

“At this point we thought we’d be down to one single issue, but the (responses) kept flipping back and forth,” said Mary Kay Williams, a consultant on the effort who was recently appointed full-time executive director to the Centre County Community Foundation.

The initiative began this year when the CCCF received a $50,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to identify and plan to address one issue that affects all of the county.

Monday’s group will include 22 local professionals from public and private entities, such as housing companies, school districts and public transportation, who will spend the day answering questions about each issue on a private laptop computer and have the chance to offer insight on what services aren’t available.

“We already have a lot of high-powered organizations that do a lot in children, youth and family activities, so it makes me anxious to see the unmet needs,” said Williams, who wasn’t surprised at either of the top issues.

The results will be tallied on Monday and a recommendation will be sent to the Centre County Community Foundation’s board of directors, which has the final say.

After a decision is made, a strategic plan will be developed by the end of the year. The strategy likely will take years to complete.

This is the first leadership grant of its kind the Knight Foundation has awarded and, so far, it is pleased with how it has been handled, according to Julie Tarr, evaluation director.

“We left the process completely up to them because we wanted to be sure it was something the entire community in Centre County could buy into and support,” she said. “The two leading issues are large in scale and it will just depend on how the strategic plan unfolds. I hope there will be benchmarks.” Williams, who has been with the Focus Centre County project from the start, said her new role with the foundation won’t change her activity with Focus Centre County.

“When you begin a project, you really want to finish it,” she said. “If anything, this is really going to solidify that it’s all going to happen.”

Williams, a former training manager and human relations director, will wrap up her private consulting business, MindShift Inc., by the end of the year.

She was tapped as a consultant for Focus Centre County by a member of the Centre County Community Foundation and has worked with James Ladlee and Walt Whitmer, of the Cooperative Extension at Penn State, to head the effort. She said she later heard about the opening for an executive director at the foundation and decided to apply.

“I wasn’t really looking for a job because my consulting business was going so well, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.

Williams said she enjoys the diverse nature of the county, both urban and rural, and wants to make sure the foundation keeps its focus on programs and grants that affect all parts of the region. She likely will make use of information gathered from Focus Centre County meetings.

Tom Songer, chairman of the committee that oversaw the Focus Centre County grant, agreed that the initiative may result in some changes at the foundation.

“We realize we are a countywide foundation, and I want to make sure we promote ourselves countywide,” he said. “So many times everyone sees this as State College, but board members have always looked to recruit from outside the State College area, and they’ll continue to do that.”

Williams, of Spring Mills, comes to the foundation at a time when it is managing about 200 charitable funds and holds more than $20 million in assets.

Williams said she’d like to plan a retreat for the foundation, which is largely volunteer-run, and wants to provide some services for the community, such as youth education in investment and philanthropy, and classes for women on estate planning.

“If we do good things, good things will come to us,” she said. “I think Centre County is a wonderful community of people who are very kind and have big hearts. I see this as a great opportunity to harness some of that.”