Local Action: The Hommer Foundation

From humble beginnings, the Hommer Foundation is now giving back to the small communities around it.

Karyn Pinter, Peter Kern and Carol Kern of the Hommer Foundation, with the Kerns' granddaughter Julia

Karyn Pinter, Peter Kern and Carol Kern of the Hommer Foundation, with the Kerns' granddaughter Julia

Updated November 2016 — The year was 1995, a decade since Julius Hommer had wound down operations of the tool-and-die shop he’d led for 43 years in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. What remained was a small brick building on a one-acre lot. The property was for sale: $800,000. But there were no buyers.

That’s when Peter Kern, Hommer’s son-in-law, gently floated an idea: “The Brazilian Portuguese community nearby dearly want this building for a church,” Kern explained. “You know they can’t afford the price you’re asking. Why not just give it to them?”

The idea to make this one gift set in motion events that would change many lives, not just in Newark, but also in small communities near the Kerns’ home in northeastern Pennsylvania. This initial gift eventually led to the creation of a $15 million family foundation, now celebrating its 17th year of giving to the community.

Accidental philanthropists
Julius Hommer (pronounced Homer) and his wife, Katheryn, were children of humble European immigrants. They married in 1932 during the Great Depression. Resilience was in their genes. He was a tool-and-die maker; she studied art. Together, they founded Hommer Tool and Manufacturing Company at the outbreak of World War II. Initially, the company made precision components for the burgeoning telecommunications industry. Later, they used their talented employees to create designs for plastic products, making everything from sewing boxes to faux jewelry to the prizes found in Cracker Jack boxes. Their business savvy and modest lifestyle enabled them to accumulate a small fortune at their retirement. They had always been generous to family, close friends, scores of employees. But philanthropy? To strangers? It was a novel concept.

But not to Carol, the Hommers' only child, and her husband, Peter. Both avid readers, they were taken by the biography of one of America’s foremost philanthropists, Andrew Carnegie, who once said, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” Peter had another deeply held belief he shared with his father-in-law — a man may prosper through a long life of hard work, but he seldom achieves success without the help of others. Julius Hommer, at the age of 91, took this advice when he decided to give his property to a fledgling church in downtown Newark — a church that today is a vital part of the community.

“When my father saw the joy on the faces of the Portuguese people in that congregation,” Carol recalls of the Good Friday in 1995 when the property changed hands, “he was overwhelmed.”

Katheryn Hommer was pleased, too, so much so that she agreed, at the Kerns’ urging and direction, to establish the Julius and Katheryn Hommer Foundation in Pennsylvania in 1996 after her husband passed away. The foundation, led jointly by the Kerns and Katheryn, began with just $25,000 and grew slowly. At first, grants were small, but a pattern was established, and when Katheryn died in 2001, the corpus grew to $13 million and continues to grow as grants increase.

Talent and wisdom
“Creating wealth requires talent,” Carol Kern says. “Giving it away requires wisdom.”

“That’s why from Day One,” Peter Kern adds, “we read as much as we could about running a family foundation — the pros and cons, the pitfalls, the booby traps. We created a paper trail. We developed our grant-making principles and documented everything.”

Peter and Carol Kern, now in their 70s, are parents of three grown children — Carl, Keith, and Karyn — and have long been leaders in the small Pennsylvania communities north of Allentown where they live and work. Peter, a chemical engineer by training, served as President and CEO of Palmerton Hospital between 1988 and 2000; he now leads the Palmerton Area Chamber of Commerce. Carol, who has degrees in physics and astronomy, is a driving force behind the Western Pocono Community Library, which she helped establish in 1974 and which she has directed since 1990.

Since its inception, the Kerns have run the Hommer Foundation with no staff and a small board of directors. Their children, who share their parents’ enthusiasm for the foundation, are regularly involved in grant discussions. Their daughter, Karyn Pinter, joined the board of directors in 2011 as part of the foundation’s succession planning, helping to ensure continuity for the philanthropy as it grows in the future.

Community focus
The Kerns’ first big decision was to narrow the geographic focus of their grant making. Since they have lived in the same house since 1965, they know their community and its surroundings well. These places — towns, townships, and counties — are close to their hearts. Thus, their grants go mostly to organizations in Carbon, Monroe, Lehigh, and Northampton counties in northeastern Pennsylvania.

They recognize they can’t be all things to all worthy institutions in their defined community, so they direct their dollars to the kinds of organizations that have long been vital to them and their family. The arts, education, and social-services agencies receive the bulk of their annual funding.

“Perhaps the most important dictum we use in making grants is this: Will it have a significant effect and help make a better community?” says Peter, who visits every organization they consider funding. “We love the Metropolitan Opera. We love the Philadelphia museums. We could give to them. But they have access to large donors. And the impact on our community wouldn’t be as great.”

Supporting local learning and more
Since its founding, the Kerns have made 315 grants totaling $6.6 million to 62 different organizations. Many of the grants are recurring, and they range in size from $2,500 to $100,000. With their educational focus, it’s not surprising that 40 percent of funds to date have gone to a dozen small community libraries.

One of the largest recipients has been the Barrett Paradise Friendly Library in the rural town of Cresco. Founded in 1909 as a one-room library, it had become cramped, antiquated, and underutilized. After a Hommer-funded feasibility study pointed a path to renewal, more than $400,000 followed. That money attracted other funds, and by 2008, Cresco had a new $3 million modern library that is four times larger than the original.

“Those grants transformed how this community uses its library,” says Cindy DeLuca, Library Director. “Our usage is way up. People come here now to relax, to gather, to attend classes or book clubs. That wasn’t possible before. The library has given our community a sense of pride. It’s the most beautiful building in town.”

At St. John Neumann Regional School in Palmerton, a K-8 Catholic school with just 80 students, not only has the Hommer Foundation contributed $125,000 for scholarships and classroom improvements over the years, but Peter also sits on the school’s advisory committee and mentors eight students every week in chess.

“Peter and Carol are passionate, dedicated people,” says Sister Virginia Stephanie, the school’s principal. “They are both people who want to give back to society. They are committed to us, and they aren’t even Catholic! They are Lutherans!”

Community Services for Children in Allentown, which helps 1,200 children in Head Start and Early Head Start programs throughout the region, has received five annual grants of $25,000. Sara George, the organization’s Vice President of Development, explains that dollars from the Hommer Foundation were given with flexibility, to be used as the program needed.

“When we received our first grant, Peter said, ‘We’re not going to restrict how you use it; you decide,’” George says. “That’s very unusual. Funders have a tendency to pay for a specific project and insist you use the money that way.” She then echoes the sentiments of other grant recipients who have come to know the Kerns.

“This is their work, their commitment,” George says. “It’s not just about giving money away. It’s about being a partner in the mission of the organization. It’s about the deeply felt decisions they make in terms of how the Hommer money will be invested to improve the quality of life in this area.”

The Kerns are grateful for such praise as much as they would prefer to deflect it. They like to say recognition should encourage others to give.

“We didn’t come from wealth, but we have been fortunate to be guardians of it,” Carol says. “I think my parents would be delighted to know we managed their funds like this. I know they would.”

Justin Catanoso is Director of Journalism at Wake Forest University.

Photography by David Yellen

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