RUSSELL — It all started with a simple idea 16 years ago. Today, Russell County Area Community Foundation has endowments worth nearly $12 million and consists of 75 funds.

“We were founded by people in the community who were concerned things were changing and wanted to make sure there was a vibrant foundation in place to really preserve our rural way of life and to help our hometowns thrive,” said Angela Muller, the foundation’s executive director.

Since its inception, the foundation also has awarded nearly $2 million in charitable donations to various Russell County projects, which include park and school improvements, public health endeavors and the arts.

Area children always have been a particular area of focus for charitable programs, and the foundation offers a generous scholarship program, with $155,000 available this year to assist college-bound Russell County students.

A total of 11 different scholarship funds are established with the foundation, which provides a variety of opportunities for area youth. The largest scholarship fund is the Joshua Fund, which this year alone will fund 25 $4,500 scholarships and two $10,000 gifts, Muller said.

“He wanted to give back and really help kids who didn’t think they would have the chance to go to college, so they could have that opportunity,” Muller said of the fund’s donor, Dr. Starr F. Schlobohm. “We are very happy to help facilitate that fund.”

Because the foundation offers so many scholarship programs, criteria vary for each fund. More details are available at rcacf.net; applications are due every year by March 1.

The foundation offers another financial assistance program called the Russell Area Youth Activities Fund, which helps children with a financial needs participate in extracurricular activities, such as athletics, fine arts and camps. Grants are limited to $200 per applicant each fiscal year, and applications always are accepted.

“We’ve awarded thousands of dollars worth of grants to help kids,” she said. “That’s for everybody in our area who needs that.”

But for some local children, the needs are as basic as having enough food to eat. With that in mind, an anonymous donor founded the Russell Backpack Fund, which provides take-home food for elementary school children who need it.

A backpack full of healthy food is sent home with children in need on Fridays so the family has food for the weekend. A subtle system has been arranged to transfer the backpack so the children don’t feel singled out, Muller said.

“The schools help identify the families that they feel need that,” she said. “It’s a program operated through churches of the Russell area; they do that together.”

The foundation’s largest grant is the “Think Big, Think Russell County” grant, which awards $30,000 to one non-profit organization, local government or school. The purpose is to jump-start a charitable project that will have significant local impact. That award is given each spring, but the application deadline was Feb. 1.

Past projects through that grant have included playground improvements at Simpson Elementary School and improvements to the local recreation commission’s baseball fields.

“It just shows you how if you invest in these gifts and these programs, how far they can go,” Muller said. “We’re starting to see some fantastic things happening, and it’s because of the foresight of those people 16 years ago who saw that a community foundation was a great way for people to invest in their communities.”