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Nonprofits share in Cummings Foundation’s grants of $100,000 each

Elders eager to improve their computer skills face hurdles these days at the Marlborough Senior Center, where they must wait to take turns on just four computers. The city’s many Brazilian-born Portuguese speakers often don’t register since classes aren’t offered in their native language.

“We’re a growing center,” said director Jennifer Claro, noting that its membership has climbed from 465 to 745 since 2011. “Our programs need to grow and our technology needs to grow.”

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Despite limited local funds, the center will soon get several of its wishes, including a Portuguese-speaking computer instructor, plus 10 new laptops and tablets that seniors can take home for practice. It’s all possible thanks to a Woburn-based foundation that is increasing its philanthropic outreach and energizing small nonprofits around the region.

Earlier this summer, Cummings Foundation began sending out $100,000 checks to public institutions and nonprofit agencies across Greater Boston, with 14 of the recipients in area communities. Most of them have started putting the funds to work.

The grants were part of the foundation’s $10 million One World Boston initiative to assist 100 mission-driven organizations.

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Led by commercial real estate mogul William Cummings and his wife, Joyce, the foundation aims to give back to communities where the family has done business for four decades through Cummings Properties, a commercial real estate firm, as well as to agencies that serve communities where company employees reside.

The beneficiaries are primarily small organizations that seldom, if ever, receive a six-figure gift, which can bring wish-list projects suddenly within reach.

“These organizations might not have the soliciting power that the big, well-established entities have,” William Cummings said, “so we’re working with organizations where what we do can make a noticeable difference.”

Last year, the foundation awarded 60 grants of $100,000 in Greater Boston. Now that the foundation’s assets have reached $1 billion, Cummings said, it has more to give away, and the philanthropy’s directors are eagerly putting assets to work locally.

This year’s grants are fueling health, education, and human service organizations in eight area communities: Arlington, Bedford, Framingham, Lexington, Marlborough, Sudbury, Watertown, and Weston. Marlborough led the way with four grants totaling $400,000.

The influx of private charitable dollars spells good news for the region, where needs are growing yet often go unnoticed, according to Judith Salerno, executive director of the Foundation for MetroWest, a Natick-based philanthropy that supports nonprofit groups in more than 30 area communities.

Salerno noted that 12.5 percent of children in the region receive subsidized school lunches, based on family income, yet because the region is perceived to be affluent, local needs are often overlooked.

“If you’re working one or two minimum-wage jobs for businesses in Metro West, it’s very difficult for you to live in Metro West” because of the area’s high cost of living, Salerno said. Because needs are mounting and local charities depend almost exclusively on local donors, she said, the Cummings Foundation’s six-figure gifts are particularly helpful.

For Cummings, 76, the One World Boston grants represent a philanthropic dream come true. Born in Somerville and raised in Medford, he made his fortune in commercial real estate by building and redeveloping more than 10 million square feet of space in Greater Boston. The Cummings Foundation owns and derives revenue from the majority of the buildings that his company manages.

For beneficiary organizations, the grants are helping workers keep pace with changing times as they try to stretch their budgets.

Consider the Watertown-based Asperger’s Association of New England. As awareness of the neurological condition grows, so also do requests for information and assistance, according to executive director Dania Jekel. One indicator: AANE’s mailing list was adding 1,000 names per year in 2011, but the growth rate is now 2,500 names per year, and the total has topped 25,000.

With this year’s Cummings Foundation grant, AANE will be able to expand services for adults with Asperger’s, Jekel said.

Trained part-time coaches who work with clients to improve life skills, such as interviewing for jobs or reading subtle social cues, will be assigned more hours to serve a growing clientele. Staffers who answer questions via phone and e-mail will have more support, and will aim to respond to queries within 24 hours, she said.

“Many adults have struggled with something for their entire lives, but they don’t know what it is that keeps them from making friends’’ or accounts for “their high, high anxiety,” Jekel said, and they can call her organization in search of answers. “It’s huge for them to understand why life is so difficult.”

Cummings expects the foundation will be even more generous next year. In addition to another round of $100,000 grants for 100 organizations in Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk counties, he said, 10 area groups will receive $1 million each; the seven-figure boosts will go to organizations that the foundation has invited to apply.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be
reached at gjeffrey.macdon- ald@gmail.com.
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