In 2015, local philanthropist Don Hamer gifted $1 million to the residents of Centre County in case of a natural disaster — but he would never know how much of an impact his donation would have.
Hamer’s gift was inspired by the tragedies following Hurricane Sandy, according to Wendy Vinhage, the executive director of Centre County United Way. The funds, however, have only been utilized recently given the financial tragedies faced by many residents due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Managed partly by CCUW, the Hamer Foundation Community Disaster Fund supports those facing financial devastation from the pandemic, including job loss and financial instability.
“We really see this as a fund that can kind of be a safety net for a lot of people,” Vinhage said. “[It’s] a way to help people who fall between the cracks. That could be middle class people who have never needed this sort of support before. We really see this as a sort of way to make sure our community is stable.”
Rather than let CCUW manage and allocate the funds, however, the organization is trusting nonprofits to do so, since they know where resources are needed most in the community. For example, if a Centre County resident is behind on their rent due to the pandemic, a nonprofit can apply to the Hamer Foundation on behalf of the individual and attempt to get them the necessary funds.
Since the Hamer Foundation Community Disaster Fund was just launched and publicized in May, donations have not yet had a complete influence in Centre County. Vinhage anticipates that as summer approaches, the fund will continue to gain traction and become more popular among residents.
Hamer’s gift is often regarded as his legacy to the community. After his death in 2016, the funds will continue to have influence in Centre County — even if not in the intended way.
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“The kind of person he was, I know that he would jump at the opportunity to help in any way, especially if it was to help Centre County,” Vinhage said. “I don’t think he ever anticipated that there would be a pandemic. I think he was really anticipating a natural disaster. His intent was to help the community — I don’t know if he had any idea as to what wonderful of an impact he would have.”
Penn State vice president of development and alumni relations O. Richard Bundy III recognizes the Hamer Foundation as a long-lasting partner of Penn State, highlighting that Hamer’s influence will continue to outlive him through its impact on the community.
“The Hamer Foundation has a long and rich tradition of partnering with Penn State to improve our community and enrich the lives and livelihoods of the people who call this region home,” Bundy said in a statement. “We are grateful for all the ways the Hamer Foundation has demonstrated its commitment to the health and welfare of communities throughout Central Pennsylvania.”
Centre Helps, a local nonprofit focused on providing support to the Centre County community, was among the first to take advantage of the resource as a means of helping residents with expenditures such as overdue rent and utility bills.
None of the money from the Hamer Fund goes toward organizational expenses, according to Leanne Lenz, the executive director of Centre Helps. Lenz said 100% goes toward providing funding directly to clients in need.
“[Centre Helps] just makes the connection by getting the Hamer Fund to go toward the client bill,” Lenz said. “We make that happen through our Basic Needs Case Management Program, where we help people who are in short-term financial crisis that prevent them from meeting their basic needs.”
Lenz also emphasized the fund’s role in helping prevent evictions and homelessness in Centre County. The fund will troubleshoot issues at utility companies or with landlords that could continue to rise as a result of the pandemic.
“In addition to helping individuals,” Lenz said in reference to the fund, “it’s going to ultimately help the quality of life for everyone in Centre County.”
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