Largest-ever gift to Ypsilanti Area Community Fund helps ensure future of six Ypsi organizations

Ypsilanti couple Jim and Marla Gousseff donated their $1.8 million estate to create endowment funds for six local organizations they loved.
Ypsilanti couple Jim and Marla Gousseff volunteered to better their community for many years, and their legacy will live on through the recent donation of their $1.8 million estate to six local organizations they loved.

Jim Gousseff, who had been a professor of communications and theater arts at Eastern Michigan University for 35 years, died in 2014. Marla Gousseff, an occupational therapist, established a bequest to create seven new endowment funds through the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation's (AAACF) Ypsilanti affiliate, the Ypsilanti Area Community Fund (YACF), just before she died in 2019. The creation of the funds was finalized in late 2020.
Jim and Marla Gousseff.
The first fund is the central unrestricted James W. and Marla J. Gousseff Fund, the largest contribution in YACF's history, which will help fund a number of competitive grant requests. The rest of the estate established individual endowment funds for six local organizations: Corner Health Center, Riverside Arts Center, Salvation Army of Washtenaw County, SOS Community Services, the Ypsilanti District Library (YDL), and Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels (YMOW).

Endowment funds provide long-term support for organizations who keep the principal investment intact and draw off the interest generated by those funds.

Katelyn Videto.
"As well as being a guaranteed funding stream, it diversifies the source of funding for nonprofits," says Katelyn Videto, philanthropic services manager at AAACF. "These funds are meant to ride the ups and downs of the market and be something nonprofits can predict and depend on."

The unrestricted fund is overseen by an advisory committee of 11 community members. Videto says it's their job to "help guide those [grant-making] decisions and help us make the best potential impact."

The six community organizations who also received endowments are using those funds in a variety of ways.

Alison Foreman, executive director of YMOW, says Marla Gousseff was involved with YMOW for many years, sitting on the committee that organizes YMOW's annual home tour and opening her own home to the tour just before her final illness. The couple would also hand-sign thank-you letters to local donors, even as Jim was in his final year of life. Marla would print out the letters and bring them to Jim so they could have something to do together.

"Even when Jim was in hospice care, they were still thinking about how to support the community," Foreman says. "Marla and Jim didn't have kids, so the community was what was important to them. They felt this support system was something they wanted to leave a legacy for."

An Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels staffer with meals to be delivered.
Foreman says the new endowment fund will help YMOW reach out to more seniors than ever before, leverage the fund to gain even more donations, and allow YMOW to work on strategic, long-term goals. 

Foreman says many donors want to see their donations used immediately on tangible services, rather than sitting in a fund for mundane expenditures like vehicles, so they're less likely to fund those sorts of capital projects. The new endowment will also allow YMOW to pay for those less-attractive capital expenditures, like buying new delivery vehicles about every other year.

Corner Health Center will use its endowment to support uninsured and underinsured patients, especially in the area of mental health, according to Versell Smith, Jr., executive director of the Ypsilanti-based health center serving youth ages 12-25.

Smith says Marla Gousseff was a donor to Corner Health Center for over 22 years and volunteered with the organization as well. The organization was "delighted" to learn of the legacy gift, he says.

"Being able to use this to provide extended therapy services to young men and women at no cost is really tremendous," Smith says. 

The fund will also provide breastfeeding supplies, infant carriers, and other material support for young mothers and infants. And for patients who might want to monitor their blood pressure at home or have a virtual visit with a physician, the health center will be able to buy equipment to send home with patients.
Corner Health Center staff with baby supplies for patients.
The fund will also support other Corner programs, including a theater troupe of young people who present productions on public health topics like safe sex or vaping. Smith says Jim Gousseff probably would have appreciated that project due to his background in theater arts. He notes that when the troupe reassembles, it will present a performance for the Ladies Literary Club of Ypsilanti in the Gousseffs' honor.

Lisa Hoenig, director of YDL, says the endowment couldn't have come at a better time, as YDL is getting ready to break ground on a new branch in Superior Township on April 7. The project has experienced delays and "skyrocketing costs" related to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, she says. YDL has increased the budget for the new branch from $3.5 million to $5.5 million, requiring YDL to launch a $2 million capital campaign. Hoenig says YDL had planned to invest 10% of funds raised during the capital campaign into an endowment fund for ongoing maintenance and support of the new branch.

"Lo and behold, we get this gift [from the Gousseff endowment] for $200,000, or 10% of that $2 million," she says. "It seems like it was meant to be. I can't even express how grateful to the Gousseffs we are."
A rendering of YDL's Superior branch.
Hoenig says the completion of that branch will mean that there is "a full-service library within a 10-minute drive of everyone in our district." 

"We're really pleased to be in such great company with the other organizations who were granted," she says. "It really goes to the heart of their love for Ypsilanti in wanting to see arts and culture and people here in Ypsilanti thrive."

Videto says AAACF and YACF employees are always willing to work with anyone who would like to leave a legacy gift in the same vein as the Gousseff fund.

"The generosity and forethought the Gousseffs had for Ypsilanti show that anyone can be a philanthropist," she says.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of the organizations pictured.
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