Pokagon Fund celebrates 10 years of giving

DOWAGIAC — One local nonprofit is celebrating a milestone anniversary by taking time to recognize organizations that have worked to make their communities better places.

This year, The Pokagon Fund celebrated 10 years of giving more than $25 million in grant funding to area organizations. In Dowagiac, the group has awarded grants to ACTION Ministries, the Beckwith Theatre, Ascension Borgess-Lee Hospital, the Cass County Council on Aging, Cass County Parks and Recreation, the city of Dowagiac, Celebration Graduation, St. Francis Outreach, the Dowagiac Chamber of Commerce, Dowagiac Union Schools, Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Stepping Stone and more.

The Pokagon Fund is a nonprofit private foundation supported by revenue from The Four Winds Casino Resort in New Buffalo. Since its inception, The Pokagon Fund has granted more than $25 million in awards and scholarships. Grants are also awarded to nonprofit and governmental organizations in Hartford, Dowagiac and South Bend. The fund’s mission is to enhance the lives of the residents of southwest Michigan through the financial support of initiatives, according to its website.

“Looking back on 10 years, and the varied ways the [Pokagon] Band’s funds have been deployed to enhance the lives of members of the community, it’s really an extraordinary accomplishment,” said Rob Gow, chairperson of the Pokagon Fund Board. “But this is really about our grantees. This is about our grantees who come up with and identify the need in their community and have the organization and enthusiasm to deploy those funds and do that magic inside those communities. Without our grantees, our money has nowhere to go.”

Several of the organizations in Dowagiac that have received grant funding from the Pokagon Fund said they were grateful to the private organization, as it has allowed them to serve the community better.

One of the oldest — and most substantial — grants given by the Pokagon Fund to an organization in Dowagiac was awarded to Ascension Borgess Lee Hospital. In 2008, the Pokagon Fund awarded the hospital with $500,000, which helped the hospital double the size of its emergency facility and provided a designated trauma room.

“This allows us to serve the community a lot better. … It’s hard to convey how important it is to have that trauma room,” said Natalie Ryder, the hospital’s Chief Administrative Officer. “[The grant] gave us an enhanced capability to take care of this community, so by supporting us, they are giving back. We have 30 people a day coming through our [emergency department] that we wouldn’t be able to accommodate if it weren’t for their support and donation.”

More recently, the Pokagon Fund donated $10,000 to St. Francis Outreach in 2018 for its backpack program. The program helps to provide food assistance to 120 children at Dowagiac elementary schools by providing them each Friday with a bag filled with two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners, and fresh fruit and snacks for students to eat over the weekend when they do not have access to school-provided meals. Participating students are chosen by school staff, according to program organizers.

“The grant was a huge blessing,” said David Hannapel, president of St. Francis Outreach. “With [the Pokagon Fund’s] generous gift, we were really able to expand the program and add a lot more needy children to the mix. … We feel that this is a great way to help the kids stay healthy and focus when they are in school.”

Also in 2018, the Pokagon Fund awarded a $5,000 matching grant to The Stepping Stone’s community unity initiative, with funds being used to enhance community beautification through landscaping, lighting, park benches, bicycle racks, walkways and various other improvements.

Ester Stanley, the founder of The Stepping Stone, said the beautification funded by the grant had uplifted the community.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this [without the grant],” she said. “We are very thankful.”

The Pokagon Fund has also given to many other organizations in Dowagiac over the years, including $115,000 in grants for various projects at Dowagiac Union Schools and $5,000 annually to ACTION Ministries’ food pantry.

Though the funds granted by the Pokagon Fund are spread out between communities in the Michiana area, making sure that Dowagiac organizations are recognized as grantees is important as Dowagiac is the government seat of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and home to many in the triber said Roger Rader, a former member of the Pokagon Fund Board.

“It’s always important to give back to the community because the tribe has always been here,” he said. “We live here. We work here. We play here. We are not just helping out ‘the’ community. We are helping out ‘our’ community, as well.”

Going into the future, representatives with the Pokagon Fund said they want to continue to give to organizations in the Michiana area to allow them to continue to better their communities using Pokagon Fund grants.

“How our grantees use our funds is a bigger story than the Pokagon Fund itself,” Gow said. “For our anniversary, we are honoring our grantees and looking at their successes. … We want to continue to see our grantees enrich their communities.”

“We want to make sure [our grantees] are helping as many people as possible,” Rader added. “It is an honor to help those who help others.”

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