The Evergreen Foundation was formed by the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health in 1977. At that time, state mental health agencies could not own property, so non-profit property holding arms were created. The first tract of land the Foundation owned was a 715-acre parcel in Jackson County on which the offices of the Smoky Mountain Center were once located.
Most state mental health agencies have since dissolved their nonprofit arms, since the law changed and they can now own property directly. But the Smoky Mountain Center kept its nonprofit arm. Today, the Evergreen Foundation owns 23 properties scattered across the seven western counties, which it rents out to mental health providers at a low cost.
With money coming in from leases and investments, the Foundation is also able to support scholarships and training initiatives that further mental health care in Western North Carolina.
“There’s never going to be enough state, federal, and local funding to address the needs in the community,” said Tom McDevitt, director of the Evergreen Foundation. “That’s what the Foundation’s ultimate goal is — to supplement proceeds to provide services for disabilities.”
McDevitt hopes to eventually attain $100 million in assets for the Foundation. Currently, it has $20 million.
McDevitt points to tangible examples of how the Foundation has benefited the community, such as establishing the Balsam Center. Initially, the Center was set up to house a program for abused youth, but the program lost state funding less than a year after it was established.
However, much of Foundation’s funds are plowed back into its asset pool with the aim of accumulating $100 million. Board member Barbara Vicknair said she has not personally seen many grants doled out for scholarships and training during her year on the board, and questions whether the Foundation could be doing more to further mental health care in WNC.
“A lot of people fall through the cracks, and I’d like to see somebody reach out to those people,” Vicknair said.
Though the majority of nonprofit arms have been brought back under the wing of their parent mental health agencies, there’s no intention to do that with the Evergreen Foundation. The reason: keep the Foundation’s $20 million in assets secure.
If the Foundation was merged back with the Smoky Mountain Center, and the state decided to merge or dissolve the mental health agency, the assets could be lost.
“If the Foundation is a part of Smoky, and Smoky goes under, where would all those funds go?” asked John Bauknight, chair of the Evergreen Foundation board. “It’s probably going to end up in Raleigh, and they’ll disperse it through the counties.”
Evergreen has kept a low profile over the years, and as a result, is little-understood.
“These people work behind the scenes,” said McDevitt. “They’re not looking for any acknowledgement or any publicity. You’ll never find any kind of article about Evergreen, because there never would have been an article. Evergreen is a small foundation with a very specific mission.”