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CASEY: SIMPLE funds small-scale efforts to benefit communities

CASEY: SIMPLE funds small-scale efforts to benefit communities

The group, which started in 2018, makes $1,000 grants to community projects that affect a broad swath of the Roanoke Valley.

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This week I learned about a do-gooding Roanoke organization that’s been around for three years and has funded literally dozens of programs and small projects around the Roanoke Valley.

Its name is SIMPLE, which stands for “Supporting Innovative, Meaningful Projects & Local Experimentation.” And now the group — which comprises 10 families who pool their money to bestow $1,000 grants — is looking for more applicants.

Have you seen “I [HEART] SE” T-shirts around town, or the yard signs and stickers with the same message in Southeast Roanoke? SIMPLE funded those to encourage pride in a neighborhood that needed some.

You might be aware of a summer Code Club offered by Roanoke County’s Public Library that taught computer programming to children ages nine to 13. SIMPLE helped fund that, too.

They’ve also put money behind a gym program called Fitness for Good — the goal is to reduce social isolation for people 65 and older while increasing seniors’ physical activity. They purchased a washer and dryer at Fairview Elementary, for use by parents of its students.

And if you’ve dropped by the Harrison Museum of African American Culture recently, you might have noticed the Black Fathers Art Showcase — funded by SIMPLE.

“The theme itself is about the Black family, with emphasis on the Black father,” and the exhibit numbers roughly 20 paintings, drawings and sculptures, said Anita Price, who volunteers at the museum. Among the local artists featured are Monica Jones, Bryce Cobbs and Robert Pennix, she said.

SIMPLE has dozens of other examples, such as a storytelling project related to World HIV/AIDS Day, an esteem-building program for women suffering from lupus, and a summer camp for LGBTQ youths. There’s not space in this column to list all of them.

The group was founded in 2018 when Brad Stephens, who lives in Old Southwest, began talking with some friends about ways they could make a difference in the community. Eventually the idea expanded to include 10 individuals and families.

Some donors stay for a year then move on; they’re replaced with others who’ve become interested. Right now the funders are 10 separate families.

Each donates $100 per month, and the donors meet once a month to decide which applicant on SIMPLE’s list will get the $1,000 that month. They do it each month, often over potluck dinners at each others’ homes.

Member Matt McKimmy, who grew up in Bedford County, and later wound up in Indiana, said Stephens was one of the first people he and his wife met when they moved back to the Roanoke Valley four years ago. Both were involved in CityWorksXpo, another nonprofit.

In devising SIMPLE, “He and I and one other put our heads together and we followed a model [for similar efforts] in other communities,” McKimmy said. Eventually they had 10 members and began making grants.

Another founding member was Joanna Paysour, pastor of Greene Memorial and Trinity United Methodist churches.

One of the advantages of SIMPLE, Stephens said, is that it’s not a registered not-for-profit organization. That means donors don’t get a tax deduction for their contributions.

But it also means the group can operate with more flexibility than registered nonprofits, which have rules and regulations to follow.

For example, McKimmy said that grants by registered nonprofits “often exclude funding certain parts of a program for items such as employee salaries.” SIMPLE’s not bound by such rules.

“The money is available for risk-tolerant purposes,” Stephens told me. “Some we know are going to be slam dunks; some we realize might never come to fruition.”

“We give [funding] with no strings attached,” Paysour said.

McKimmy called the essence of SIMPLE’s work “creative, collaborative philanthropy.”

Not all the projects are as evident as two murals SIMPLE has funded. McKimmy said the group has also aided fledging registered nonprofits by covering their legal expenses and incorporation fees.

Paysour told me she has no single “favorite” project or program SIMPLE has helped.

“I like the breadth of the projects more than any one single project,” she added. “You get to see a broader scope of what’s happening in the community.”

Stephens said applicants don’t have to have any particular grant-writing experience — something that’s a skill all by itself. Sunni Purviance, who founded I [HEART] SE, said her 2018 application for a grant to fund T-shirts was “super easy.”

“I filled it out while driving my daughter around town on errands and talking into my phone,” she said — an activity that became illegal this year.

The $1,000 grant bought Purviance 100 shirts that she gave away at a block party. And it spurred the demand for more shirts. Purviance estimated she’s distributed 700 more shirts since then — some of which she had printed at her own expense and were sold at cost.

“It was just to kind of change the reputation,” she said. Southeast Roanoke “had a negative reputation. But there are people here who love it.”

Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or dan.casey@roanoke.com. Follow him on Twitter:.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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