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Frey family’s foundation aims to help individuals and families cope with chaos

In the midst of economic gloom and doom, there remain good organizations doing good deeds.

The Frey Foundation of Minnesota, for example, is announcing Wednesday that it is giving $5 million to several organizations to provide support services for the homeless.

Obviously, there are bigger organizations giving larger grants, but what makes this gift special is that it is given with unquestioned faith to organizations that can’t necessarily prove bottom-line results.

Rather than giving grants to programs that build housing, the Frey Foundation targets its money to organizations that work with homeless people who have issues that contributed to their homelessness in the first place.

“You can’t simply pluck a family out of a shelter, put them in a home and say, ‘Live long and prosper,’ ” said Jim Frey, the director of the foundation.

Bringing calm to families in chaos
This is the second time in less than four years that the foundation has made a $5 million contribution for such things as mental health counseling, chemical dependency treatment, employment training, working with kids in after-school programs. The whole idea is to help bring calm and some degree of stability to families that have lived in chaos.

“When people ask, ‘How we doing with this?’ we can’t drive you by places we’ve built,” said Frey. “At best, I can give you anecdotal evidence about some family over here that’s received help and now, their kids are in the same school they were a few years ago, or they have the same job they had last year, or that this mom is clean and sober and getting a degree. The tangible product is not there. The successes we have we may never see again.”

Jim Frey
Courtesy of Frey Foundation
Foundation Director Jim Frey

To give without knowing an outcome takes a degree of hopefulness many of us likely have lost over the years, particularly surrounding areas such as homelessness, which seems to persist in good times and bad.

“There are cynics among us who say, ‘They’re homeless because they’re lazy,’ ” said Frey. “There may be a few like that. But in the main, what we know is that these are people who love their children as much as we love ours. These are people who didn’t set out in their lives to be homeless. Some may have made bad choices. In other cases, it was bad turns of fate. There’s not one reason. But what you learn when you spend time with homeless people is that they’re really no different than you or me.”

Frey’s own exposure started when he was a youngster and accompanied his mother, Mary, on her volunteer duties at Catholic Charities branches in the Twin Cities.

It was spending so much time at Catholic Charity branches as a youth with his mother, who has been a leader in a number of charitable causes, that define him, more than the fact that he has been in a wheelchair since his junior year in high school. That’s when he was involved in a car accident and suffered spinal cord damage.

“I can’t deny that it’s [the wheelchair] there, but I get along just fine,” said Frey, who has an undergraduate degree from St. John’s, a law degree from William Mitchell and has practiced law with Leonard, Street & Deinard.

Family foundation involves three Frey generations
Now 56, Frey has headed the foundation since 2003. Three generations of Freys are involved in the foundation.

The Freys’ life was dramatically different from those they met at those facilities. Jim’s father, Eugene, was an extraordinarily successful businessman. In 1985, he led a group that purchased the Waldorf Corp. in St. Paul. By 1994, that business, known most for the production of boxes from recycled paper, was the fifth-largest privately held company in Minnesota, employing more than 2,200 people.

The Frey Foundation was established in 1985, but it wasn’t until Waldorf Corp. was sold to Atlanta-based Rock-Tenn for about $400 million in 1997 that the foundation had the resources needed to make substantial contributions.

It should be noted that not all Frey generosity has come through the foundation. For example, a year ago, Eugene and Mary Frey gave $10 million to the University of St. Thomas. The money is earmarked for grants to undergraduate students, with top priority going to students of color, first-generation college students, students from immigrant communities and students with disabilities.

For its part, the foundation didn’t find what it now considers its niche — homeless support — until a few years ago.

“We looked at where we could make the biggest difference with limited dollars,” Frey said. “It come back to more than stable housing. It comes back to people having a chance to stabilize their lives.”

If kids grow up in unstable environments, their own chances of making it to stability [and] productivity will be diminished.

“What a terrible waste of lives that is,” Frey said.

Frey is on the steering committee of Heading Home Minnesota, which is dedicated to bringing together public, private and religious organizations in a massive campaign to deal with homelessness across the state.

“We’ve never seen this sort of cooperation before,” he said.

The cooperation among so many sectors is a hopeful sign for the future, though Frey admits that the current economy creates difficulties.

At least in the short term, the bad economy will create more homelessness. Additionally, the Frey Foundation’s endowment “has taken a serious hit in the last eight to 10 months,” he said.

“We can’t do everything we’ve wanted to do,” he said. “We have to be diligent about how we prioritize. We can’t give out all the grants we gave out a year ago. That’s the part of philanthropy that’s always difficult.”

Still, it was the right time, he said, to write a check for $5 million.

“That’s the pleasant part of what we do,” Frey said. “We know it can’t be a cure-all, but you also know it’s going to give some families a chance.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 03/24/2009 - 03:38 pm.

    Jim Frey is a great guy. I was in some music groups with his son in college, and he would come up and support us whenever he could. He’s also done great things for his alma mater. Jim and his son (and probably all the rest) are very down to earth, modest, and well grounded in the community. I’m glad to see their family profiled here, and I’m even happier to hear about the good work they’re doing for the community.

  2. Submitted by Jim Roth on 03/25/2009 - 12:00 pm.

    I worked with Jim Frey several years ago and also had some contact with his father. I have always been impressed by the humility, generosity and kindness demonstrated by the family and now the foundation. This is an inspiring story and should be picked up by other media as an example for others in these dufficult times and in contrast to all of the negative stories we hear every day. Our communities really need people like the Frey family, now more than ever.

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