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The Wilson Foundation will have a colossal impact on Western New York

The late Ralph C. Wilson Jr. left hundreds of millions of dollars to Western New York. His enormous generosity will have a meaningful impact on the lives of many of the region’s most vulnerable citizens.

The Buffalo Bills founder and longtime owner entrusted leaders of his foundation with disbursing $1.2 billion to worthy causes in Southeast Michigan and Western New York over a 20-year period. The money comes from the team’s sale to Terry and Kim Pegula.

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation has decided to fund four areas of interest, in line with Wilson’s philanthropy over the years. As detailed by News staff reporter Henry Davis, they are:

• Children and youth, with an emphasis on programs beyond traditional kindergarten through 12th-grade education and including a focus on early childhood initiatives, sports and youth development programs, and after-school programs.

• Young adults and working-class families, such as skills training and education that can lead to good-paying jobs and increased independence, given the heavy demands and limited resources of many individuals and families.

• Caregiving, with an initial focus on skills training and respite for paid and volunteer caregivers for older adults and seniors.

• Healthy communities, including support of spaces and programs that support healthy living, improving nonprofit organization productivity and innovation, and economic development initiatives to spur regional growth, innovation and equity.

The foundation has already started taking applications through its website at Organizations that fit the above guidelines are encouraged to apply. But they must have a solid plan for the money. It also helps to have other sources of funding in the mix rather than rely solely on Wilson Foundation funds.

It is a smart approach that will help the foundation separate the solid organizations from those that are more aspirational than substantive.

Wilson chose as the foundation’s four “life trustees” people who understood his wishes – Mary, his widow; Mary M. Owen, the owner’s niece and a former team executive; Jeffrey C. Littmann, former Bills treasurer and chief financial officer; and Eugene Driker, a Detroit-based attorney and longtime Wilson associate.

A front-page story in The News last Sunday illustrated the need for the assistance the Wilson Foundation will provide. The story reported on the alarming rate of poverty among children attending the Buffalo Public Schools. A crushing 54 percent lived in poverty in 2015, up 7 percentage points from the year before.

Say Yes to Education Buffalo is working to ease that poverty by offering financial aid for higher education, in addition to wraparound services for students and their families. In recognition of this work, the Wilson Foundation has already donated $2 million to the Say Yes scholarship fund.

The Wilson Foundation is unlike foundations that try to preserve assets while using income to fund grants. Wilson directed that the entire $1.2 billion be spent within 20 years. That will supercharge the foundation’s impact. The foundation has already provided $60 million in grants to organizations and “shovel-ready” projects in Western New York and Southeast Michigan.

That largesse will be dwarfed by the grants to come, with the first of those due in early 2017. Still to be decided is the number of grants and amount of money to be spent next year.

Wilson took a chance on Buffalo in 1959 when he agreed to place a pro football team here. Western New York remains grateful he took that gamble, one that is about to have a major impact for generations.

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