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Wean Foundation's impact startling — just leave the pasta alone

By Todd Franko (Contact)


Published October 24, 2008

I’ve seen few groups in my career arrive in a community with much promise, and then exceed that promise.

Yet I’ve watched headline after headline involving the Raymond John Wean Foundation, and I shake my head how successful this group has been after just one short year in the Mahoning Valley.

Wean’s impact starts with individual groups such as United Methodist Community Center, WRTA, Planned Parenthood of Northeast Ohio, Beatitude House and many, many more.

It continues with broader institutions and efforts like Youngstown City Schools and state initiatives on the homeless.

Its impact weaves between agencies and individuals large and small, such as with the home ownership incentive program for Youngstown and Warren.

A lead written by Vindy reporter Dave Skolnick when the above program was announced last December highlights the uniqueness of Wean: “Youngstown and Warren have offered incentives to entice people to move to their cities, but nothing that reaches the $575,000 the Raymond John Wean Foundation is offering to eligible participants to buy houses in the Mahoning Valley’s most populated cities.”

(That story closes with this reality: Youngstown has a program that provides low-income people with up to $6,000 toward the purchase of a house through a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant. But it’s “mired in red tape because of federal requirements,” and only six grants, averaging $3,000 each, were awarded.)

I also like Wean’s dedication to help the helpers — the area’s nonprofit agencies.

There are hundreds of nonprofit agencies in the valley. They are an industry unto themselves. Wean has made it a goal to strengthen those agencies’ abilities and skill sets so that the thousands of people helped by those agencies can be better impacted.

I was asked to speak at Wean’s inaugural nonprofit summit last year. Invited were the leaders and doers of just about every agency in the valley. The room on the lower level of the D.D. and Velma Davis Education & Visitor Center at Fellows Riverside Gardens was packed. The 90-minute or so gathering could have continued for another 90 minutes as these leaders fed off each others’ challenges and hopes.

I got another taste — almost literally — of one key to the success of Wean.

Joel Ratner is the president of the Wean foundation, and we had lunch a few weeks ago. The lunch was to get up to speed with what’s next from Wean, so Joel did a lot of the talking. As he talked, his food sat. And sat. And sat (For the record: it was a pasta dish at Café Cimmento.).

He managed a bite here and there while three of us sat with empty plates hearing Joel, in a low, deliberate voice, outline Wean. His voice could easily be one of those narrators on a meditation CD.

At least three times, the wait staff tried to take Joel’s lunch from him — in the polite way wait staff does under the assumption you’re done with your plate because everybody else at the table is done.

But Joel was determined to enjoy his lunch while also enjoying his discussion of Wean. By the third waiter’s visit, you could sense Joel growing tired of defending his pasta and his eating pace. “No ... I intend ... to finish this lunch,” were Joel’s basic words to the worker. It was almost Richard Dreyfuss-like. I think his hand may have even been in mid air, warding off the staffer’s plate reach.

We even tried to steer the chat to just the three others at the table, but those chats would eventually get back to Joel and Wean — and a stalled lunch.

Joel did finish his lunch, a testament to focus on a plan and dedication to a commitment — even if it was pasta.

It is clear after just more than a year in town, those same attributes can be found in his work with Wean as well.

Behind Ratner is a foundation mission that didn’t happen overnight, and is beholden to a Wean family member — Gordon B. Wean of Cleveland. It was his move that redirected the foundation’s focus and $4 million in annual giving from a hodge-podge of national interests to the Youngstown-Warren area, where Raymond John Wean made his fortune in the steel industry in the early 1900s via Wean Engineering Company.

Visit the foundation’s website to learn more about this group.

While there, read “A Community Building Philanthropic Initiative to Strengthen the Mahoning Valley” on the Wean site.

It’s a stark dissection of the Valley and our challenges. The report serves as the road map of sorts to which Wean directs its focus.

It is a good read. It has been a good year. It has a good future.

 

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