February 4, 2019
SHOP TALK

Reliant Foundation had to stand on its own quickly

Reliant Foundation President Kelsa Zereski

Kelsa Zereski, President, Reliant Foundation, Worcester

Organization founded: 1988

Employees: 2

Assets: $18 million

Born: Holden

Residence: Shrewsbury

Age: 48

Education: Bachelor of arts in marketing, Assumption College in Worcester

When international healthcare company Optum bought Reliant Medical Group for $28 million on March 31, the Worcester physician group's foundation was spun out as an independent entity. The Reliant Foundation received $13.4 million as part of the sale and last year had its largest year of giving.

Do you anticipate the transition to happen so quickly?

The separation was expected because Optum is a for-profit, and it wouldn't make much sense for them to own a nonprofit. The transition itself was more abrupt than we expected.

I found out we needed to move out of our office space two or three weeks before Optum closed on the Reliant Medical purchase. Luckily, Chip Norton, who owns the building Reliant Medical is in, had a space available we could have immediately at 120 Front St. in Worcester. I then worked right away to line up our own separate vendors.

Then you moved again.

We stayed at 120 Front for a little while, and then came across this space at 311 Main St., which really intrigued me. I liked the old building and thought it had character, and I liked the idea of being on Main Street. The idea of revitalizing Main Street was really important to me. We signed a five-year lease here and are really excited for it to be our permanent home.

And you had to build a staff from scratch.

Before the foundation was pushed out, Reliant Medical had the employees. I was with Reliant Medical Group as its director of philanthropy for 10 years. Reliant Foundation then hired me as president in April.

It also had a much bigger board at the time, because it was comprised of Reliant physicians and community members. Now, it is all community. We had 28 board members; now we have 14. We will look to restore the 50/50 balance between medical professionals and community members.

Do you plan on growing your staff?

We are looking to stay lean. With the transition, we had to take on some costs very quickly, so we want to stay small with just the two employees.

What is your mission?

Our mission is to impact the community health of Central Massachusetts and MetroWest. We have identified two main areas of need: the opioid crisis and youth mental & behavioral health.

We are basically your feet on the street in assessing community health needs, and we do that by participating in the development of the Community Health Improvement Plans in each region. I participate in almost all of those meetings, and then I visit the nonprofits where we make grants and where we could make grants.

At the end of the year, with our finger right on the pulse of what the community needs are, we then give out our grants.

What nonprofits receive your grants?

One project that came to our attention at the end of 2017 was the Channing House in Worcester, run by Advocates, Inc. It is a recovery home for men and was in desperate need of renovations. So, we raised $51,000 to give to Advocates.

How do you pick them?

Charities apply to us before our Oct. 1 deadline, and the needs should be tied to the top needs of those Community Health Improvement Plans, which are opioid addiction and mental & behavioral health needs of children and youths.

It is a very competitive process. We received requests totalling $1.2 million this past fall and awarded $431,000 in grants. In some cases, there are small grants like $5,000 for Abby's House in Worcester to conduct advocacy and support services for women who are homeless. On the larger end, Anna Maria College in Paxton is creating a center for addiction and recovery with curriculum, community forums, speaker presentations, training for the next generation of people working in that space. That was a $30,000 grant.

Is the amount you give tied to your $18 million in assets?

As a public charity, it is really our role to be stewards of those funds. If the stock market would behave and be less volatile, we could grow those funds.

In 2018, we gave out $500,000, which is the largest we ever gave out. That was made possible because of those funds and the generosity of our donors.

In 2019, I would love to be able to give out more. We'll see what the market does.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Editor Brad Kane.

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