Editorial: Follow Joe Burrow’s lead and address ‘philanthropy gap’ in Appalachian Ohio

The challenges facing our fellow Ohioans in Appalachian communities at times seem so overwhelming that it could be difficult for anyone to know where or how to start to address them.

Here is one easy way: Make a donation to the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio.

A recent story by Dispatch and Report For America reporter Ceili Doyle highlighted not only the poverty in the region, but also the dearth of philanthropic efforts across Appalachian Ohio, which pale in comparison with their urban and suburban counterparts.

The story noted that the region has 90% fewer charitable assets per capita than counties outside of Appalachia. That’s roughly $770 spent on a person in the region, as compared with an average of $6,663 spent annually on Ohioans not living in Appalachian counties, according to 2016 data, the latest available, provided by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship.

But a little over a year ago, we saw the good that can happen when thousands of people from across the land rally around Appalachia.

That outpouring was inspired by a native son, Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback from Athens County, who dedicated 31 seconds of his nationally televised Heisman Trophy speech in December 2019 to highlight the poverty and hunger in his home county.

“Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very, very impoverished area. The poverty rate is almost two times the national average,” Burrow said that night in New York. “There are so many people there that don’t have a lot, and I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here, too.”

After seeing Burrow’s emotional speech, another native son, Athens resident Will Drabold, set up a Facebook fundraiser to benefit the Athens County Food Pantry.

Donations flooded in – more than $650,000 so far to an agency that previously had an annual budget of no more than $100,000.

The pantry spent some of the donations on food and resources, but it then invested $350,000 to create the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund as a longer-term solution. The Foundation for Appalachian Ohio was able to match that investment dollar for dollar using money allocated to it by the state, for a total initial investment of $700,000.

Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and Athens County native, is the namesake of the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund, which serves Appalachian communities.

As valuable as those dollars are to the hungry families of southeastern Ohio, the difference between charitable assets per capita in counties outside of Appalachia versus those within Appalachia remains stark.

Thirty-two counties in eastern and southern Ohio are considered part of Appalachia. They stretch from Ashtabula County in the far northeast corner of the state to Clermont County next to Cincinnati, and they also include these counties: Adams, Athens, Belmont, Brown, Carroll, Columbiana, Coshocton, Gallia, Guernsey, Harrison, Highland, Hocking, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lawrence, Mahoning, Meigs, Monroe, Morgan, Muskingum, Noble, Perry, Pike, Ross, Scioto, Trumbull, Tuscarawas, Vinton, and Washington.

Jennifer Sheets, a Meigs County attorney, told Doyle that the lack of charitable funds is a significant structural barrier to success, and contributes to the overwhelming sense that Appalachia is the “lost corridor of Ohio.”

The Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, a regional community nonprofit group originally funded by the state legislature, now has a goal to raise $1 billion over the next 20 years and eventually give $55 million annually.

In its last budget, the state awarded Foundation for Appalachian Ohio a $10 million matching fund, which helped it establish 11 local community funds in Appalachian counties.

In his latest budget proposal, Gov. Mike DeWine recommended that the legislature grant the foundation $5 million each year out of a $20.5 million appropriation for local development projects in the upcoming 2022-2023 budget.

This is a wise state investment, as was the original seed money for the foundation and subsequent investments in the foundation.

It’s clear from the the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio’s website that residents of Appalachia are making donations to improve their communities. But it’s also clear that because of the relative lack of wealth in Appalachian communities compared with their urban and suburban counterparts, the best hope for building strong community foundations in Appalachian communities will come from outside them.

That could include all of us who spent four years or more studying at colleges within Appalachia – Marietta College, Muskingum University, Ohio University, Shawnee State University and Youngstown State University, for example.

It includes those of us who enjoy weekends in the Hocking Hills or any of the many tourist destinations across one of the most beautiful parts of this state.

It includes the businesses that have benefited from the natural resources and manpower in Appalachia.

And it includes people like Burrow, who grew up amid both the inspiring natural beauty of southeastern Ohio and the the painful knowledge that too many of his neighbors go to bed hungry each night.

He didn’t forget, and he demonstrated in a powerful way that one person – each of us –can make a difference in a part of our state where the seemingly overwhelming challenges leave us wondering where to begin.

The answer is easy: Make a donation to the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio at appalachianohio.org or 35 Public Square, Nelsonville, OH 45764.

— Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 17