With new leadership at the helm of the Sherwood Trust, the charitable organization with deep roots in the Walla Walla Valley has proven its history of generosity is more important than ever in the time of COVID-19.

The philanthropic organization that is now so vital to the Valley — especially in a year like 2020 — traces its origins in 1922, the year that Donald Sherwood graduated from Whitman College. His experience at Whitman initiated a lifelong association with the college — he is often credited with saving Whitman from bankruptcy during the Great Depression.

In 1929, Sherwood married Walla Walla native Virginia Kelly, daughter of Walla Walla Union-Bulletin publisher John Kelly and his wife Martha.

A successful businessman, Sherwood worked for Standard Oil after graduation, and in 1932 founded Sherwood & Roberts, a full-service real estate and finance firm.

Always community minded, the Sherwoods were significant supporters of Whitman College and First Congregational Church. When the new Walla Walla Public Library was proposed in the 1960s, the couple loaned the money for its construction and carried the debt until the library could pay it off.

In 1991, Donald and Virginia founded the Sherwood Trust, dedicated to the highest, sustainable quality of life for everyone in the Walla Walla area. The trust’s approach is not based on charity. It makes grants in the form of long-term investments in the Walla Walla Valley from Dayton to Milton-Freewater.

Fast forward to late 2019 — two meetings with nonprofits emphasized that funding for unrestricted operation costs was the No. 1 need of nonprofits in the area and the trust responded to those needs. When the virus hit full bore in early June 2020, the trust had just released $400,000 in grants ranging from $3,550 to $20,000 for unrestricted operational costs for 27 organizations. The timing couldn’t have been better.

In addition, rather than try to initiate an additional grant program to respond to the pandemic, the trust provided $29,405 to the Blue Mountain Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund to distribute in the Valley to address immediate needs including food, shelter, health and mental health services during the pandemic. The 20-person team that administers the ongoing fund includes Brian Hunt, CEO of the Sherwood Trust.

Although they are relatively new staff of the Sherwood Trust, CEO Brian Hunt and Program Director Julia Leavitt embraced the challenges.

After former CEO Danielle Garbe-Reser left the trust in late 2019, Hunt was named CEO in March 2020. Hunt came to Walla Walla in 2015 as the publisher of the Union-Bulletin and had already developed strong connections in the Valley.

One of the first projects he was involved in as publisher was the Community Conversations Project with Community Council, where he really got to know the area and its people.

Hearing the challenges and concerns expressed in the conversations motivated him to consider working for a nonprofit. When the CEO position came up at the Sherwood Trust, he saw the opportunity to work for a nonprofit whose mission is to address the issues facing communities in the Valley and that focus encouraged when he made the decision to join the trust

Leavitt, also a Whitman graduate, has a broad background in community organizing through her work at Blue Mountain Action Council (BMAC), the Kids Place, the Walla Walla and College Place school districts and extensive volunteer work. Her position has enabled the trust to expand their support to improve nonprofit infrastructure and collaboration.

The Nonprofit and Community Learning Center (NCLC), a partnership with Walla Walla Community College’s Department of Continuing Education and Sherwood Trust, exists to provide networking, education, and ongoing training to nonprofit staff, board members, and community members on ways to be involved in strengthening organizations and communities throughout the region.

In addition, the Sherwood Trust Community Leadership program has been enhancing the leadership skills of people in the Valley for 17 years, with an average of 30 participants in each class.

There is no cost to participants.

Program Director Julia Leavitt points out that the Leadership Program and the other trust programs are all open to the community, not just to nonprofits.

Working with the trust’s board of directors headed by Chuck Fulton, the organization continues to respond to changing circumstances.

Hunt notes the ongoing culture of cooperation in the area: “The nonprofit community in our region does a tremendous amount of important work, much of it not publicly recognized. The collaboration and creativity local nonprofit leaders bring to this work is inspiring and powerful.”

Donald and Virginia Sherwood, who both passed away in 1994, left a far-reaching legacy that has already provided more than $32 million in funding for a wide variety of initiatives including capital projects, grassroots neighborhood projects and program grants. Organization, community, and community leadership grants and programs are designed to support individuals, nonprofit organizations, communities and ultimately local economies.

As for the future, this chapter and the next of the Valley are hard to predict, but the trust is dedicated to building a sense of belonging, diversity and equity.

Leavitt pointed out that “COVID-19 exposed the fragility of our systems.”

An important part of the mission of Sherwood Trust’s ongoing work is helping address racial equity in the Walla Walla Valley.”

The Sherwood Trust works in collaboration with nonprofit organizations, government and the private sector to address the challenges that face the Walla Walla Valley.

For more information about the Sherwood Trust, its grants and programs, visit their website at www.sherwoodtrust.org.