Man’s $150M gift could transform Elkhart County

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David Gundlach lived a life many in his northern Indiana hometown could only dream of, using a fortune made from the sale of his British insurance company to travel the world, collect multimillion-dollar homes and luxury cars and dabble in the movie industry.

But the eccentric entrepreneur's Indiana roots ran deeper than many knew, and now Elkhart, which once symbolized the depths of the Great Recession, is preparing for a reversal of fortune thanks to what many residents simply call "The Gift."

Gundlach died in October 2011, leaving his $150 million fortune to the Elkhart County Community Foundation, which was founded in 1989 to improve the county by raising funds for nonprofits. Foundation leaders have recently begun awarding grants to nonprofit groups and are planning how best to use the money in help the county's 200,000 residents.

"David's gift is historic, truly historic. It will write a different future for Elkhart County," said Pete McCown, president of the foundation.

That different future is a welcome change for Elkhart County, where the jobless rate peaked in 2009 at 18.9 percent and nearly 18,000 jobs disappeared after the recreational industry collapsed. Things got so bad that President Barack Obama made two stops in 2009 to tout his economic stimulus plan.

Nonprofit organizations that bowed under the weight of the need for services during the down times say Gundlach's gift gives the community something that was missing for far too long.

"Hope is just essential when it comes to the role of a community, and this gift is just absolutely a blessing from the standpoint of increasing that hope," said Rod Roberson, executive director of Church Community Services of Elkhart, a faith-based organization that provides social services to those in need. "That's one of the reasons people call it simply 'The Gift.'"

Roberson's organization saw a $1 million capital campaign stall in 2008 for several years because it had to focus on meeting emergency needs instead of long-term needs. He said Gundlach's gift gives not-for-profits hope that there will be a source of money even in tough times. Church Community Services recently received a $100,000 grant from the community foundation for a Men Alive program, where it provides life skills and employment training for six men for 20 hours a week for 20 weeks.

D.J. Kosloski, 20, doesn't know who Gundlach was, but he's benefiting from that grant. He has learning disabilities that make reading and writing a struggle and has been unable to find a full-time job since graduating from high school nearly three years ago.

Kosloski is making minimum wage and learning skills ranging from how to plant a vegetable garden to how to work in a warehouse through Men Alive. He's also building his self-discipline and self-esteem.

"I still started to get a little depressed because I didn't have a job," he said. "This program has given me confidence to apply to college after this while working full time."

Other early beneficiaries of Gundlach's generosity include the Bashor Children's Home, which offers programs for at-risk youth; the Elkhart County Museum Association, which is using its grant to pay for school field trips; and the Salvation Army of Goshen, which used its $250,000 grant for a senior care program as leverage to obtain another national grant of $500,000.

The benefits are expected to grow as the foundation determines how best to spend Gundlach's bequest. McCown said. Gundlach, who enjoyed contributing to charities around the world, collected works by Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall and backed the 2010 movie "Get Low," placed no restrictions on how to distribute the funds.

The foundation plans to award grants each year worth 5 percent of its endowment's average value for the 16 previous quarters, so it will take a while before the full effects of Gundlach's donation are felt. But things are already getting better.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the county led the nation in job growth between September 2011 and September 2012 with 4,734 manufacturing jobs added. RV shipments finished at a four-year high. And the county's unemployment rate in January was 6.2 percent.

County Commissioner Mike Yoder said permanent change will take time.

"I think one of the challenges for this community is to understand that we're talking about a generational change. You don't transform a community in two or three years. It takes a generation," he said.

Gundlach's gift was the ninth-largest in the nation in 2012, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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