Philanthropy often begins with a deeply personal experience. This is especially true of people who give their time, talent and resources to support health-related issues and causes. People like Dr. Penny George, a consulting psychologist, who delivered a powerful keynote address at “Building a Healthy Community,” a recent event hosted by The Minneapolis Foundation at which she recounted an experience that both changed her life and inspired her philanthropy.
Penny vividly recalls the cold Minnesota evening in February 1996 when her life was turned upside down. She came home after a long day at work and checked her voicemail. Her husband, Bill, was out of town on business. Her sons were away at college and graduate school. She was alone when heard the message from her doctor. He had the results from her recent mammogram and needed to see her right away.
A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis: breast cancer. A mastectomy, chemo and hormone therapy followed. She had no complaints about the care she received, but she couldn’t help feeling like something was missing. “The care was focused only on my body part and the disease, and the doctor was the one in charge, not me,” she said. “There was no hint that I was expected to play a part in my own healing.”
She knew that her mind and spirit—not just her body—needed to heal. Acupuncture, yoga, nutritional strategies and meditation became an important part of her treatment. Her community, including friends, family and her church, also played a significant role.
After her cancer was successfully treated, Dr. George and her husband decided to use their family foundation to influence health care by advancing principles and practices that address the needs of the whole human being. It’s work they’ve been doing for twenty years now.
A few years ago, they convened a group of leaders in integrative medicine to take stock of their accomplishments and determine what they should do next. Up to that point, they were focused exclusively on influencing change within the health-care system and its institutions. What they realized was that there was a significant need and opportunity to support community-based efforts to promote a culture of health and well-being.
“Penny’s work is a model of how it’s possible to invest in solutions that change whole systems and whole communities.”
– R.T. Rybak
This realization led the George Family Foundation to establish the Catalyst Initiative. Suzanne Koepplinger was brought on as executive director and set out to determine how Catalyst could best serve communities most in need of investment. She started by listening to people in communities with the poorest health outcomes, including indigenous communities and communities of color, and quickly recognized that they also had the highest rates of trauma and toxic stress, which presented “a huge barrier to people beginning to access good health.”
As a result, the initiative set two priorities. First, “We believe that self-care is primary care,” Koepplinger said. “So how do we create behavioral patterns and social norms to support that, and how do we embed trauma healing practices in community?” Second, the initiative looked for ways to make those resources accessible to everyone.
In its first three years, the Catalyst Initiative made 58 seed grants supporting community-led efforts to promote wellness. One grant helped Open Path Resources, a nonprofit that serves East African immigrant families and faith centers, introduce its community to self-care techniques that blend mind-body medicine with Islamic principles. Another project called the Healing Justice Network trains youth of color in techniques that aid stress reduction and self-regulation, then gives them opportunities to teach those skills to adults and other youth.
In 2018, Catalyst transitioned to The Minneapolis Foundation, forming a new partnership that will help the initiative take its work to scale. The move will help Catalyst in its effort to demonstrate the value of this work and, in turn, move health-care policy away from a deficit-based model focused on disease toward an asset-based approach focused on health and well-being. George said moving Catalyst to The Minneapolis Foundation will allow it to fulfill its potential and grow beyond what one family foundation could support.
For its part, The Minneapolis Foundation believes Catalyst will benefit the more than 1,700 people who are part of its giving community, particularly those who direct their giving to health-related causes and issues. Foundation President and CEO R.T. Rybak said Penny George has and will continue to inspire anyone committed to building healthy communities. “One thing that’s striking about her philanthropy is the breadth of her vision,” he said. “Penny’s work is a model of how it’s possible to invest in solutions that change whole systems and whole communities.”