Torch passed at community foundation

Luncheon honors outgoing president, key philanthropists

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Richard Melching was so celebrated, honored and applauded at the Hilton Vancouver Washington on Tuesday, he said he found the whole thing embarrassing.

After leading the influential Community Foundation for Southwest Washington for six years, Melching will leave his job as foundation president at the end of this month. His hand-picked successor, foundation Vice President Jennifer Rhoads, becomes president on June 1. Melching and Rhoads passed the torch at the foundation's annual luncheon on Tuesday -- where Melching also won the annual Friend of the Foundation award and Jim and Kay McClaskey were named Philanthropists of the Year for 2013.

The event looked to the future, even as it honored the philanthropic players and achievements of the past and present. Attendees began their experience by visiting 10 high-tech, interactive banners that told stories and showed videos of the Community Foundation's philanthropy on their smartphones. The subjects were nonprofit agencies or projects that the Community Foundation has supported, including local Boys & Girls Clubs, the Clark County Food Bank, the Women's Foundation and the Chelsea Anderson Memorial Playground at Vancouver's Marshall Community Center.

The banners were created by the students of the Creative Media and Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver, directed by associate professor Dene Grigar. Guests downloaded an application called Aurasma or used the tablets that docents provided.

The Community Foundation has granted $127 million over its 28-year history, board chairwoman Kaycee Witta said, and gave out $5.87 million in 2012 alone. Its recent focus, driven by a $700,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is interrupting cycles of intergenerational poverty; to that end it has restructured some of its grants and focused many of them on early childhood education, and will undertake a series of community conversations about intergenerational poverty — in partnership with The Columbian — this fall.

Foundation friend

David Nierenberg, a Camas philanthropist and key member of the foundation's board, directed his introductory remarks to award-winner Melching's grandchildren, who were in the audience: "We're talking today about Grandpa," he said. "When you go camping with him, he tells you to always leave the campground better than you found it, right?"

That's just how Melching has treated Clark County, Nierenberg said — first for 31 years as an educator, including nine years as superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools, and then as leader of the Community Foundation for six years. It was a job that Melching, who had other plans, took somewhat reluctantly in 2007. "Soon after he took the baton," Nierenberg added, "we endured the worst economic and stock market crash of our lives."

Melching's response, Nierenberg recalled, was to "focus on doing the right thing the right way." Under Melching, the Community Foundation picked up the pace — increasing its assets, growing its endowment, cultivating an estimated $100 million in estate gifts, adding new dedicated funds and giving out more than $40 million in grants and scholarships. It also expanded its presence in Cowlitz County and started a Youth Philanthropy Council.

"I got hooked by it," Melching said of the role he adamantly rejected at first. "This job has been an honor and a privilege. My plan is to remain a friend of the foundation forever."

Incoming foundation president Rhoads thanked Melching for selecting and believing in her even though her style is very different than his. Melching, she said, is all about "structure and well-thought-out plans — and I tend to go through life with my hair on fire."

Philanthropists

As a visitor to the Stepping Stones Family Bereavement Retreat, you're allowed to cry, noted Jim and Kay McClaskey —you just can't cry longer or harder than the grieving families who go there to heal.

Stepping Stones, a program of PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, is the key project of the McClaskeys, who were named the foundation's 2013 Philanthropists of the Year. Since 2007, they have been the sole support for the camp, a weekend haven for children and families that has hosted 450 people since the McClaskeys took it on.

"For us, helping families heal and find hope brings overwhelming happiness," Jim McClaskey said. "We believe the Stepping Stones Family Bereavement Retreat is the only camp in our area, and possibly the nation, where the whole family participates."

It was Jim McClaskey, a board member of what was then Southwest Washington Medical Center, who first floated the idea of a local hospice care facility. That seed eventually became the Ray Hickey Hospice House, which opened in 2004. The McClaskeys have served on many nonprofit boards and supported many other causes, from the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington and the Children's Center to the Columbia River Maritime Museum and the University of Oregon.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.