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Cummings Foundation spreads the wealth

Woburn Police Sergeant Paul Tenney with a camera that reads license plate numbers, financed by a Cummings Foundation grant.JonathanWiggs/Globe Staff

At The Community Family adult day center in Everett, clients with Alzheimer’s disease miss doing their artwork. When art therapy was once offered, the clients would ask for their painting canvases as soon as they arrived in the morning, and stay remarkably focused for hours.

Alzheimer’s “can be a frustrating disease,” says Community Family executive director Anne Marchetta, but clients “have less frustration and less anxiety” when art is available.

The center hasn’t offered art therapy for two years because budgets have been too tight. But that is soon changing, thanks to a Woburn-based foundation whose substantial awards are energizing small nonprofits around the region.


Earlier this summer, the Cummings Foundation began sending 51 checks for $100,000 each to public institutions and nonprofit agencies in communities north of Boston. Most grantees are now putting the funds to work. The grants were part of a $10 million initiative to fund 100 mission-driven organizations in Greater Boston.

Led by commercial real estate magnate William Cummings, 76, and his wife, Joyce, 72, who live in Winchester, the foundation aims to give back to communities where the family did business and where their employees still reside. Beneficiaries are almost entirely small organizations that seldom if ever receive a six-figure gift. When they do get one, wish-list projects – thought to be prohibitively pricey — suddenly come 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 each in Greater Boston. Now that the foundation’s assets have reached $1 billion, Cummings said, directors have more to give away and are eagerly putting assets to work locally. Within this year’s $10 million initiative, more assets are being distributed north of Boston than anywhere else.


“There are so many philanthropies that are clustered [in Boston] that the whole north-of-Boston area tends to be left out, hence our interest in Middlesex and Essex counties,” Cummings said.

Leading the grant haul are Beverly and Woburn, where the foundation has its largest property holdings, including the Cummings Center in Beverly and TradeCenter 128 in Woburn. Beverly received nine grants ; Woburn received 11. In all, grants went to organizations in 15 communities north of Boston. Most grants went to agencies that work in health care, human services, or education.

The Stoneham Boys and Girls Club’s Gene Dion at the Wakefield site where the club will offer a new after-school program. A $100,000 Cummings Foundation grant will free up other club funds for items ranging from textbooks to sports equipment.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

By concentrating on small nonprofits, the foundation is playing to a regional strength, according to David Wellbourne, president and chief executive of the Essex County Community Foundation. He said Essex County is dense with small organizations. Some 2,500 nonprofits serve a county with a population of 750,000.

That landscape reflects both cultural history and regional priorities, he added. This corner of New England has long valued local control and specialized benevolent enterprises, many of which exist to care for the needs of close-by neighbors.

“Bill and Joyce are reinforcing the decisions that individuals have made here for 400 years to say ‘We want an organization that does this or does that,’ ” Wellbourne said. “Our choice here repeatedly has been that we like many different organizations, so we’re going to support many different organizations.”

Plans for grant money vary as widely as the recipients’ organizational missions. The Winchester Seniors Association will use its $100,000 to refurbish its 35-year-old facility.


The Essex National Heritage Commission in Salem will hire young people who have struggled to find jobs. Lazarus House in Lawrence will provide education and job training for individuals facing poverty.

In some cases, Cummings grants are giving a boost to shoestring projects already in the works.

Consider Wakefield. The town has been looking forward to this fall, when the Stoneham Boys & Girls Club plans to open a Wakefield facility where a $25 membership fee will give students a year’s worth of after-school access.

With its largest-ever donation now coming from the foundation, the club’s Wakefield branch won’t have to have to scrimp in order to offer its Power Hour program of tutorials and homework assistance. The $100,000 grant frees up other funds to be used for items ranging from textbooks on healthy eating to floor hockey equipment, according to Gerry DeViller, executive director.

“It would have been difficult” to launch the Power Hour without this grant, DeViller said. “This grant allows us to use other funds that come in for some of our other programs.”

In Woburn, a grant is equipping police with what they say will be powerful, otherwise unaffordable technology: license plate readers.

Cameras mounted on a trunk of a cruiser will photograph only license plates, not drivers or vehicle interiors, according to Woburn Police Chief Robert Ferullo. Information will be cross-checked with federal and state databases in search of stolen cars and other violations.


“It’s a great tool that will be used tremendously, but in the fiscal times that we face, it’s a ‘nice to have’ [item] rather than a ‘need to have,’ ” Ferullo said. “We’d probably have had a hard time getting a freestanding Department of Justice grant or anything like that for this.”

The Community Family, which has sites in Medford, Everett, and Lowell, will use its grant funding not only to pay an art therapist, but also for other enrichment resources, such as iPads, which are easier for some clients to use than desktop computers.

Cummings expects the foundation will be even more generous in 2014. In addition to another round of $100,000 grants for 100 organizations in Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk counties, 10 area groups will receive $1 million each.

The larger grants will be awarded only to organizations the foundation has invited to apply.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at g.jeffrey.mac