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Fund helps America take care of its own backyard

By Randy ShippStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 1981



Prison inmates growing and selling their own vegetables are thanking the America the Beautiful Fund. So are residents near the revamped mission area of San Luis Obispo, Calif. -- first planned by young design students who, concerned that the town was turning its back on its heritage, asked the fund for help. And so are visitors sharing in a fund-sponsored artists-in-residence program at Palisades Interstate Park in New York-New Jersey.

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One might say that the America the Beautiful Fund is dedicated to the idea that Yankee ingenuity is alive and well. Project director Nanine Bilski says the fund is intended to provide opportunities and encouragement for groups "to take care of their own backyards," and use their initiative to save or improve their communities. Since 1965, the modest nonprofit organization has aided over 5,000 citizen-initiated projects -- mostly in art, nature, or heritage -- in communities across the country.

"What makes America the beautiful is practically every square inch of the country, "she says. "The way this country was built is the way it has to be saved, which is town by town, block by block, farm by farm. I sometimes say, just imagine if the country had been built by the Department of Housing and Urban development or General Motors. We wouldn't have any New England towns or Old South or California missions."

She says that while people may not be able to solve big technological or economic problems facing their communities, they can save and preserve what makes each community unique and bring it to the next generation. Many times, what the fund does is pass on information on types of projects happening in other areas.

"We try to encourage their sense of creative problem-solving, not just to do another house-museum, not just to do another park that looks like every other park, not just to do another oral history and type it verbatim in a transcript, but to make creative use of it."

Occasionally, the fund will give "seed" money -- almost always under $1,000, and more as a symbolic gesture.

"It shows that they're being nationally recognized for doing something," says Ms. Bilski. "That little bit of money is like the scholarship that lets you go to college so you can become a newspaper writer or something. It's that little bit that you need at the beginning to get started."

Those "little bits" have had good results. When the fund did a survey of about $50,000 of the seed grants to see what happened with them, it found the grants had generated over $6 million worth of programs and projects.

One project, she says, was "so simple it's one of those genius things you wonder why nobody thought about it before." A New York architect noted that it was almost impossible to get good fresh fruits and vegetables in the city. Meanwhile farmers in New Jersey and New York had wonderful vegetables but couldn't get supermarkets to buy them. He approached the America the Beautiful Fund with the idea of starting farmers' markets right in the middle of the city.