BYRON – The Byron Foundation is looking forward to celebrating its fourth decade of existence, an amazing feat considering the difficulties that often plague fundraising and grant organizations.
To find out how this organization is able to not only survive, but thrive, for that long amid so many educational, societal, and economic upheavals, it is helpful to look at the beginning. The story of the Byron Foundation is one that honors its past, while demonstrating flexibility and creativity in facing the future.
Founded in the early 1990s, the Byron Foundation was established as a non-profit corporation to enrich and supplement the educational opportunities offered to students. To hear Kevin Lyons, who was there at the beginning, talk about it, the kernel at the heart of the Byron Foundation was a grand idea.
“Our academic programs were flourishing, but we started to think about learning that was beyond traditional course teaching. We wanted to go deeper,” Lyons said.
Brian Janssen, who was also involved in those early days said that thinking coincided with a project he heard about in Putnam County that aimed to enrich the kids’ education beyond taxpayer dollars. He talked about this idea, and the group of volunteers drew on those basics and presented a plan to the Byron School Board. In the early days, people like Susan O’Neil, Kim Crowe, Bill Young, Barb Clubb, and Elaine Breck, to name a few, worked hard to get the Byron Foundation on the map.
“We wanted to be an independent organization that provides the Byron School educators access and opportunity to impact learning that empowers students and provides an enriched education experiences,” Janssen said.
And, since they weren’t looking for tax dollars for their projects, they faced the issue of funding.
It was during these beginning years that the Byron band was in need of uniforms.
“A person came forth and wanted to donate $10,000 to provide uniforms for the band and they wanted to remain anonymous,” Janssen said.
The Byron Foundation, because it is registered with the Internal Revenue Service to receive gifts and contributions and is a 501C3 organization, was the perfect fit for solving this problem. With that huge project under its belt, the group grew and increased fundraising efforts to continue to fund other, valuable educational opportunities.
Some mainstay fundraising drives sponsored by the Byron Foundation include the must-have school calendars (produced in partnership with help from the Byron Bank) and spirit wear parents and students can pick up during every Fall’s “Back to School Night.” In addition, the organization has held basket raffles in conjunction with the spring Art Show, participated in Amazon smile, offered a gift card scrip program and oversees the Cans for Kids bin, located by the soccer field. These kinds of fundraising efforts, combined with donations from the community are the sole means of funding for the Byron Foundation.
Each fall, the organization distributes grant application forms to teachers at Byron’s three schools. The teachers who have a project that falls outside the School District’s planned budget can complete the application, which asks questions to demonstrate that the concept is one that goes above and beyond. The idea isn’t to try to duplicate district funding, but to scout out unique opportunities that harken back to the founders’ “big idea” of something really creative, meaningful, and lasting that will have a positive impact on the students and, as a result, the wider community.
Over the years, the Foundation has disbursed more than $155,000 to fund a wide array of programs and projects in the academic, fine arts, technology and career area, as well as those that create an awareness and concern for environmental and social issues, and those that enhance the relationship between the students and community.
“We provided funds to address bullying before that was recognized as an everyday problem,” Janssen said.
This program involved experts who worked with small groups of high school students to discuss their feelings and motivations and to reflect on their actions. More recent projects have included learning tools to help improve speech, field trips to see plays and art exhibits, library enhancements, classroom equipment to expand student learning environments, technology tools for reading and math that enhance traditional instruction, and the purchase musical instruments to help form after-school groups, like the Ukulele Club.
“There have been so many great and special projects we’ve funded over the years,” recalls current Board Secretary Matt Maurizio, who has served on the board for eight years. “But one that stands out in terms of impact and creativity was 8th grade team-building program.”
Maurizio said the trip included taking the whole class of students to a challenging obstacle-style course, complete with high ropes and a 30-foot climbing wall. The activities the kids engaged in that day served as a really powerful teaching tool about supporting each other, team building, and pushing through limits.
This robust and unrivaled history of the Byron Foundation, which has been supported by volunteers who spend countless hours fundraising, has faced many of the same challenges that plague most non-profits: retaining and engaging volunteers, sustaining operating funds, and increased competition for donor funding and engagement. In order to respond to these challenges, the Byron Foundation has been forward-looking in its fundraising efforts and flexible in trying new ideas to keep the proud tradition of the organization going strong.
In 2017, the Byron Foundation established an endowment fund as a financial reserve, in order to provide perpetual income and commitment to educational excellence in the Byron School District. This will help ensure the group can focus on raising awareness and funding projects without being so distracted by the need to raise money. Since starting the endowment, which can also accept 501c3 donations, the Byron Foundation is in a position to be able to fund projects well into the future.
The move was great for the Byron Foundation. The board monitors the reserves in the endowment each year and they’ve been growing steadily. And, at the same time, the group continues to solicit, review, and fund unique and truly fulfilling projects for their kids, schools and community.
In a non-profit world that seems to be moving in all sorts of directions, the Byron Foundation continues to protect and honor the legacy of the founders, while supporting the future of the children and the community of Byron.