Micro grants changing Chattanooga

Micro grants changing Chattanooga

August 1st, 2012 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Christie Burns tunes ukuleles at the Northside Neighborhood House before teaching a class. Burns received a grant from the UnFoundation to teach kids how to play the ukulele.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

A dozen students raise their red, white and blue ukuleles, and begin to play a few simple chords. Others sing aloud.

The children don't own the guitarlike instruments, which generate a light strumming sound associated with the Hawaiian Islands.

Nor were they purchased as part of a government-assistance program or federal grant.

Instead, their purchase stems from one of a half-dozen micro-grants handed out by Chattanooga's newest private foundation.

It's called the UnFoundation, and was created by a group of young community enthusiasts during a 48-hour launch incubator event in 2011.

Today, the kids are learning to play a South African hymn, which in English is called "We are marching in the light of God."

Just like earlier when they learned "Lean on Me," it's much easier to learn the chords if they've heard the song before.

The rehearsal is part of a summer camp program at the Northside Neighborhood House, where Christie Burns is teaching a group of urban and international middle-schoolers the joys of the uke.

"This wasn't intended to be a singing class, but now we're all singing together," Burns said with a smile.

Founders dreamed up the UnFoundation as a solution to the laborious process of securing traditional grants. It's a way to make Chattanooga better -- without all the paperwork.

Small projects like Burns' Ukulele program don't make sense in the world of traditional grants, said Joda Thongnopnua, a member of the UnFoundation's advisory board.

"It's a complicated process that the layperson can't even touch it," Thongnopnua said. "Usually they have people that they hire just to write grants."

In contrast, the UnFoundation requires about the same amount of information as a Gmail or Facebook account.

"We wanted to be able to fund projects that wouldn't have been considered by other foundations," Thongnopnua said.

Though it's not yet a year old, the foundation already has changed Chattanooga's landscape.

In some cases, the change is literal.

Michael Wurzel, a graduate student at UTC and an avid climber, used $1,000 to create climbing routes throughout the Chattanooga area.

"Every time you're putting up new climbs, you're making Chattanooga that much of a better destination for climbers or people who are into the outdoors," Wurzel said.

The money helped him buy hundreds of pieces of stainless steel hardware that he then manually drills into rock while hanging from a rope.

"You rappel off the top of the cliff and bolt it from the top down," he said.

It's a tough job, but Wurzel is already 80 percent finished with the installation of 30 new climbs. The installation doesn't just benefit the groups of climbers already in Chattanooga, the new routes are a huge draw for climbing enthusiasts across the nation, he said.

"I came to Chattanooga for the climbing," he said. "It's one of the best outdoors towns in the country, and most people are starting to realize that."

The UnFoundation is leaving a visual mark as well.

Muralist Kevin Bate put the finishing touches this week on a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. on M.L. King Boulevard, or what he calls "MLK on MLK."

For $1,000, he acquired the rights to a famous photo of the civil rights icon and bought enough paint for the wall, donating his time in the sweltering summer heat.

"We had trouble finding a building to put it on, and the people who were interested didn't have any money, and said 'You can do it but I can't pay you,'" Bate said.

With help the UnFoundation to move things along, Bate got to create a landmark and Chattanooga acquired a new piece of art.

"It worked out well for both of us," he said.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.