West Plains’ name ties to its founding in the 1850s — it came to be called that because the settlement was west of nearby Thomasville — but the town today is known for other names, too. Legacies that began locally include famed musicians Jan Howard and Porter Wagoner, baseball legends Bill Virdon and Preacher Roe, and actor Dick Van Dyke.
While those people and more who left West Plains have done great things, other moments of significance have continued at home.
The community has changed in phases since its inception before the Civil War. After being nearly destroyed during that period, it rebuilt in the 1860s. When local men lobbied to have the railroad come through town in the 1880s, a rapid growth in population commenced. According to West Plains’ application for its downtown to be added the National Register of Historic Places — which was approved in 2003 — the town’s population exploded by 800% between 1880 and 1900.
That development through people and businesses has continued ever since, creating a unique culture that supports regional history and heritage (its Ozarks study center and an annual old-time music festival are two examples), students at Missouri State University-West Plains, health care that’s close to home through its local hospital, and needs through the Community Foundation of West Plains.
“In times of crisis, the people of West Plains are there,” says Eric Gibson, president of the CFWP. “If it’s putting muck boots on and going to clean up a creek, okay, we’ll do that. If it’s filling two semis with water, we’ll do that too. But the passion of the people of West Plains makes it easier for us to do our job and to raise the dollars.”
The foundation was created in 2001, and operated independently until 2004, when it joined the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Since its start, the CFWP has distributed more than $2.7 million in grants to the community and holds more than $3 million in assets. Its efforts today are also supported by Joe Kammerer, central region manager for the CFO who is based in West Plains.
“There were four organizations: West Plains Sunrise Rotary, West Plains Noon Rotary, the West Plains Lions Club and the chamber,” says Joanne White, a former CFWP board member, of how the foundation came to be. “None of those four entities are 501(c)(3)s or had a foundation that was part of them. They were looking for a place to have funding for those four groups funneled through so people could get a tax deduction, and they could still get some money.
“We wanted to be the hub for things happening all around us.”
Some of those avenues include donor-advised and scholarship funds, which allow individuals and families to leave legacies for causes about which they feel passionate. Another focus for the CFWP is its annual grant round, which annually distributes between $6,000 and $8,000 to smaller local needs. One example: In its latest grant round, the CFWP allocated $600 for The Chaos Closet to help purchase underwear for children placed in foster care.
“Through our grants program, we can help some of those smaller, more short-term needs that come up each year, and help those other organizations that don’t have the resources or ability to have their own 501(c)(3),” says Josh Cotter, vice president of the CFWP. “We can help with some funding and some fundraising opportunities for them.”
To date, the CFWP has more than 20 agency partners, from schools to the arts to safety for victims of domestic and sexual violence. Local causes have received funding through the CFO: a recent example is a $22,000 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Grant, which supported restoration at the Sadie Brown Cemetery, a longtime burial ground for Black residents.
There is also effort to collaborate with other regional affiliate foundations when it makes sense.
An example is Hammond Mill Camp, a historical landmark that’s in need of repairs. It’s technically in neighboring Ozark County — and therefore falls under the Ozark County Community Foundation — but is used by many people from Howell County. Conversations are still ongoing as to how the CFWP might be able to help support the project, but it illustrates the point of beneficial collaboration.
“I didn’t want to just wash my hands of it, because there’s so many people from the immediate West Plains area that utilize that camp,” says Gibson. “We haven’t really gotten that off the ground yet, but Joe Kammerer and Kerrie Zubrod and I had a conversation. And there’s no reason why we can’t work together.”
Such conversations also tie to others about leaving a legacy — both through donations and funds, but also through the people who are impacted by their creation and allocation.
“I work for the school system, and this school year already, I’ve had two people contact me wanting to set up scholarships,” Cotter says. “It’s very handy being on the Community Foundation of West Plains board to be able to say, ‘You can do this. You can set it up however you want it.’
“That is an asset for every area of your community.”