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Leading Locally: Community Foundation of West Plains Inc.

Based in the Howell County seat, the West Plains foundation has served local needs for more than 20 years

Affilialte Profiles

Howell County foundation, created through community collaboration, serves as hub to meet local needs

West Plains’ name ties to its founding in the 1850s — it came to be called that because the settlement was west of nearby Thomasville — but the town today is known for other names, too. Legacies that began locally include famed musicians Jan Howard and Porter Wagoner, baseball legends Bill Virdon and Preacher Roe, and actor Dick Van Dyke.

While those people and more who left West Plains have done great things, other moments of significance have continued at home.

The community has changed in phases since its inception before the Civil War. After being nearly destroyed during that period, it rebuilt in the 1860s. When local men lobbied to have the railroad come through town in the 1880s, a rapid growth in population commenced. According to West Plains’ application for its downtown to be added the National Register of Historic Places — which was approved in 2003 — the town’s population exploded by 800% between 1880 and 1900.

That development through people and businesses has continued ever since, creating a unique culture that supports regional history and heritage (its Ozarks study center and an annual old-time music festival are two examples), students at Missouri State University-West Plains, health care that’s close to home through its local hospital, and needs through the Community Foundation of West Plains Inc.

“In times of crisis, the people of West Plains are there,” says Eric Gibson, president of the CFWP. “If it’s putting muck boots on and going to clean up a creek, okay, we’ll do that. If it’s filling two semis with water, we’ll do that too. But the passion of the people of West Plains makes it easier for us to do our job and to raise the dollars.”

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West Plains is the seat of Howell County, which borders Missouri's southern state line.

The foundation was created in 2001, and operated independently until 2004, when it joined the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Since its start, the CFWP has distributed more than $2.7 million in grants to the community and holds more than $3 million in assets. Its efforts today are also supported by Joe Kammerer, central region manager for the CFO who is based in West Plains.

“There were four organizations: West Plains Sunrise Rotary, West Plains Noon Rotary, the West Plains Lions Club and the chamber,” says Joanne White, a former CFWP board member, of how the foundation came to be. “None of those four entities are 501(c)3s or had a foundation that was part of them. They were looking for a place to have funding for those four groups funneled through so people could get a tax deduction, and they could still get some money.

“We wanted to be the hub for things happening all around us.”

Cfo 2023 affilaite awards eric gibson west plains

Eric Gibson, president of the Community Foundation of West Plains Inc., was selected for the 2023 Stanley Ball Leadership Award. In Gibson’s honor, the CFWP received a $2,000 grant.

Some of those avenues include donor-advised and scholarship funds, which allow individuals and families to leave legacies for causes about which they feel passionate. Another focus for the CFWP is its annual grant round, which annually distributes between $6,000 and $8,000 to smaller local needs. One example: In its latest grant round, the CFWP allocated $600 for the Chaos Closet to help purchase underwear for children placed in foster care.

“Through our grants program, we can help some of those smaller, more short-term needs that come up each year, and help those other organizations that don’t have the resources or ability to have their own 501(c)3,” says Josh Cotter, vice president of the CFWP. “We can help with some funding and some fundraising opportunities for them.”

To date, the CFWP has more than 20 agency partners, from schools to the arts to safety for victims of domestic and sexual violence. Local causes have received funding through the CFO: a recent example is a $22,000 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Grant, which supported restoration at the Sadie Brown Cemetery, a longtime burial ground for Black residents.

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The Sadie Brown Cemetery sits on the corner of U.S. 63 and Missouri 14.

There is also effort to collaborate with other regional affiliate foundations when it makes sense.

An example is Hammond Mill Camp, a historical landmark that’s in need of repairs. It’s technically in neighboring Ozark County — and therefore falls under the Ozark County Community Foundation — but is used by many people from Howell County. Conversations are still ongoing as to how the CFWP might be able to help support the project, but it illustrates the point of beneficial collaboration.

“I didn’t want to just wash my hands of it, because there’s so many people from the immediate West Plains area that utilize that camp,” says Gibson. “We haven’t really gotten that off the ground yet, but Joe Kammerer and Kerrie Zubrod and I had a conversation. And there’s no reason why we can’t work together.”

Such conversations also tie to others about leaving a legacy — both through donations and funds, but also through the people who are impacted by their creation and allocation.

“I work for the school system, and this school year already, I’ve had two people contact me wanting to set up scholarships,” Cotter says. “It’s very handy being on the Community Foundation of West Plains board to be able to say, ‘You can do this. You can set it up however you want it.’

“That is an asset for every area of your community.”

Looking to the future: Increased awareness and new event

Even though the CFWP has existed for more than two decades, even greater awareness and understanding is always a goal. One way the foundation formerly made those connections was through an annual barbecue-based event. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent rising meat prices made continuing the event a challenge.

Instead, in 2022, the board transitioned to Whiskey and Bourbon Fest. Scheduled for Nov. 17 in 2023, the event allows guests to sample various libations and raise money for the CFWP’s endowment at the same time.

In their own words

Why do you serve?

Josh Cotter 4x5

It helps your community. It sounds cheesy to say it, but it’s the truth. There are few things you can be involved with that have such broad impact in your community.”

Josh Cotter, CFWP vice president

Joanne White 4x5

“I love it. I was on the board 10 years before I retired from the chamber, and I remained on the board for three years after because I was passionate about it. I think the foundation grows West Plains in all aspects, whether it’s nonprofit, whether it’s governmental, whether it’s people in general, it just grows the community.”

—Joanne White, CFWP former board member

Eric gibson 4x5 west plains

“To make a city successful, you have to have a successful nonprofit population behind it. They don’t have to be the ones out in the spotlight. I feel like that’s where West Plains is. What I like about Community Foundation of West Plains and CFO both is that your level of philanthropy can be whatever level you want it to be.”

—Eric Gibson, CFWP president

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