Foundation Initiatives

Posted on June 12, 2023

Advancing Our Community’s Economy

Stark Community Foundation has been investing in economic development for many years and has played a significant role in spearheading a county-wide economic development movement.

Back in 2017, the Foundation commissioned and released the Strengthening Stark report, a clear-eyed assessment of the economic and social health of Stark County and recommendations to help reverse downward community trends. 

“When we started digging into the data, the facts revealed that our community was getting older, smaller and poorer,” said Mark J. Samolczyk, president and CEO of Stark Community Foundation. “We knew that we could transform Stark County into a growing, younger and more prosperous community by bringing community partners together and targeting our collective resources to advance our community’s economy.” 

The data-driven report spurred countless county-wide conversations that led to a community-wide movement of residents, businesses, government, nonprofits and philanthropy that share a vision for a vibrant, growing county.

Fast forward to today and the movement, known as Strengthening Stark, just celebrated its five-year anniversary. Much has changed in the last five years, but the movement’s goal has remained the same: to make Stark County a great place to start and grow a business, develop one’s talent, pursue a career and live and raise a family. 

The movement is overseen by Stark Economic Development Board and supported by Stark Community Foundation and other community partners that recognize the value of promoting growth and revitalization in Stark County. 

With a focus on collaboration and convening, Strengthening Stark partners have retained a small staff to bring the right people to the discussion, build support for existing efforts and catalyze new initiatives that move our community forward with four guiding priorities:

  • Market and drive enrollment for “in-demand” jobs/careers.
  • Attract/retain talent to increase the percentage of the population ages 25-44.
  • Expand and diversify employment in industries with sources of revenue outside of the county.
  • Drive and reward innovation and productivity growth.

To help drive these four priorities, Strengthening Stark convenes and supports community partners and their collaborative programs designed to upskill employees, empower minority businesses, foster an entrepreneurial mindset in area youth and more. One of the longest standing collaborations led by Strengthening Stark is Career Connect.

“Career Connect is a community collaboration of job navigators whose primary focus is to place unemployed and underemployed job seekers into livable wage jobs,” explained Aleisha Stout, project manager of Strengthening Stark. “The path to employment looks very different for each individual and is usually disrupted by obstacles, barriers and uncertainty.”

Navigators from eight area agencies meet job seekers where they are, help them identify a path to their goal employment and address barriers to gaining and retaining a livable wage. They routinely come together to share data, best practices and local resources,  allowing each agency to strengthen their individual programming and better understand county-wide challenges and opportunities. 

“Because of our collaboration in Career Connect, I’ve been made aware of so many trainings, programs and employment opportunities. Without it, I would have never known about them," said Keith Bialota of ICAN Housing, Inc.

In Stark County, the livable wage for 2022 was $15+/hour and will increase to $16.50+/hour in 2023, compared to Ohio's minimum hourly wage of $9.30. The Career Connect program strives to maintain an average above this wage and has been successful every year since it began in 2020. 

By continuously collecting and analyzing data on this program and other economic development initiatives, community partners are able to measure progress, objectively evaluate impact and inform and adjust strategies.

To learn more about Strengthening Stark and its network of community partners, visit


Protecting Stark’s Future

Childhood poverty is a critical issue to tackle in every community, but especially in Stark County.

Sobering data revealed that Canton was tied with Youngstown in 2019 as having the second-worst child poverty rate of any city in the United States with a total population greater than 65,000. With almost half of Stark County children living below the poverty line outside of Canton, Stark Community Foundation recognized the need for a deeper dive into local data to understand our community better.

After analyzing data on more than 50 community conditions, it became crystal clear that every single issue of concern in Stark County was somehow related to poverty. The analysis led to the release of Protecting Stark’s Future: A Call to Coordinate Child Poverty Strategies, an eye-opening 2020 study of the child poverty challenges facing Stark County and recommendations of how Stark County can reduce child poverty by working together to address immediate needs, increase the earnings of families and break cycles of poverty at the neighborhood level.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that everyone has a role to play in reducing child poverty,” said Mark J. Samolczyk, president and CEO of Stark Community Foundation. “As with economic development, it will take government officials, nonprofits, businesses, residents and philanthropy to develop strategies, act and monitor results. This level of collaboration may be unprecedented, but Strengthening Stark has shown us that broad-based coordination is possible in Stark County.”

Shortly after the release of Protecting Stark’s Future, Stark Community Foundation launched an initiative to tackle the critical issue of childhood poverty at the neighborhood level.

The Foundation solicited proposals from area organizations to spur community-based solutions and fuel lasting change. To date, almost $700,000 in planning and implementation grants has been awarded to 15 lead organizations to address child poverty.

Here’s a look into three Protecting Stark’s Future grantees and the steps they are taking to collaboratively solve childhood poverty:

Stark County Educational Service Center (SCESC) has expanded its pre-K CARE Team and family support specialist model in the Alliance Early Learning School to intentionally equip and empower economically disadvantaged pre-K parents/caregivers with coordinated support, skills and opportunities tailored to address their barriers, increase their income and build a stronger financial future for their young families. 


Working alongside community partners like Family Empowerment Ministries, Inc., families enjoy responsive services, support and activities that offer childcare, hearty meals, transportation and lots of community and parent-to-parent encouragement and networking.

When piloting this expansion, SCESC’s CARE Team Director Kay Port said the biggest lesson they learned was “taking time to listen and value the expertise of the parents/grandparents is worth it–– especially when you respond and include them in the building of the resources and support networks they asked for. Then, you get to watch them rise above their life challenges with and for their families.”

TomTod Ideas recently engaged a team of eighth graders from Canton City and Plain Local school districts to conduct a 24-week, on-the-ground research project on transiency. Transiency, unfortunately, is a frequent and typical life event for many families in the Canton area. With a Protecting Stark’s Future planning grant, students from Early College Middle School and Oakwood Middle School collaborated to co-investigate the causes and effects of transiency and unplanned moves between their school districts. 

Through a series of surveys, interviews, analysis and brainstorming sessions, students learned a majority of families' moves were unplanned, a common cause of transiency is a new job opportunity or financial difficulties and most new students feel confused and nervous about making new friends.

The students empathized with the anxiety and confusion that often comes from parental moving stress and a quick start at a new school. To help decrease anxiety and make students feel more welcome, students developed low-cost solutions to help their classmates. Solutions include connecting new students with current students to help guide them around the school and providing new family welcome packets that feature a map of the school and a list of different clubs and teachers’ names. Administrators from both districts have eagerly partnered with students to implement their ideas.

“These eighth-grade students have shown that supporting families facing unplanned moves is an achievable goal that can increase academic performance, community connectedness and even student mental health," said TomTod Adventure Curator Zane Sander.


University of Mount Union launched The Alliance Commons, a community hub of resources and learning, in collaboration with several community partners. 

“When we started our work on The Commons, we could not have predicted the support, progress and collaboration that would come,” said Abby Schroeder, Mount Union’s director of the Regula Center for Public Service and Civic Engagement.

In two years, Mount Union went from a Protecting Stark’s Future planning grant to coordinating a facility and receiving nearly $500,000 in grant funding to implement poverty-fighting programs.

Five anchor partners (Men's Challenge,  Mount Union, Sports Outreach, StarkFresh and YWCA) currently provide services under one roof, providing access to job training, free courses, mentoring and enrichment programs, paid internships, personal coaching for adults, groceries, clothing and more.


As community partners work collaboratively to tackle poverty, they wish people knew that poverty is not a lack of money but rather a lack of resources.

“I have never had to worry about poverty because even if I was homeless or jobless or facing any number of unfortunate circumstances, I have access to a family and a network who will support me,” explained Schroeder. “Our friends and neighbors do not all have those kinds of support systems, so a single bad decision, layoff, illness or other seemingly small misfortune can snowball into years of poverty. Breaking that cycle is not as easy as it may seem.”

To learn how other organizations are collaboratively solving childhood poverty in Stark County, visit

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