Obici Healthcare Foundation offers aid to Gates County

Published 5:42 pm Thursday, July 6, 2023

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GATESVILLE – After a three-year absence due to the COVID pandemic, the Gates County Chamber of Commerce held its Membership Appreciation Dinner here June 26 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

The event featured R. Battle Betts Jr., President and CEO of the Obici Healthcare Foundation. Prior to taking that job last year, Betts was the Director of Albemarle Regional Health Services.

Ray Freeman, Chairman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, introduced Betts.

“Battle is the best that you can find anywhere when it comes to public health,” Freeman noted. “I’ve learned a lot from him when I served on the Albemarle Regional Board. He has fought for the betterment of public health in so many ways.”

The Obici Healthcare Foundation is a private foundation established in 2006 from the sale of Louise Obici Memorial Hospital to Sentara Healthcare. Since its inception the Foundation has awarded over $61 million in grant funding. Grants are distributed to Gates County as well as Isle of Wight County – to include the city of Franklin, Southampton County, Sussex County, Surry County, and the City of Suffolk, all in Virginia.

Betts said the current assets of the Foundation are $144 million.

“I’m looking to drive more resources into Gates County because it’s so near and dear to me during my years of work in public health in northeastern North Carolina,” Betts said, adding that the Foundation works to fund 501 3-C non-profit entities focused on healthcare.

He stressed that the new athletic weightroom and indoor practice field at Gates County High School benefitted from Obici Foundation funding.

“It’s the envy of a lot of adjoining counties,” he said of the GCHS facility.

To date, the Foundation has invested over $2.7 million directly to Gates County non-profits.

“I’d like to see that number grow,” Betts stressed.

He listed the priority areas that the Foundation is focused upon. They include access to healthcare as well as prevention. The latter includes non-profits that offer early childhood education, healthy eating options, and focusing on exercise, such as developing walking trails.

Another focus, he said, goes beyond simply writing a check for a grant.

Chamber members Cecil Bagley (left) and Benjamin Saunders, Jr. share ideas prior to the start of last week’s Appreciation Dinner. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

“We’ve added capacity building where we help our grant recipients to build support within their organization so that they become stronger within to manage their finances and write grant applications,” Betts stated.

Betts spent time telling the amazing story of Amedeo Obici, born in Italy who came to America in 1898 at the age of 11, unable to read or speak English. He went on to build a famous business – Planters Peanuts.

At the age of 13, Obici visited a junkyard, finding the parts necessary to build a crude peanut roaster. He found two old wagon wheels in that same junkyard from which sprang a pushcart used to sell his peanuts. The rest, as they say, is history.

Obici worked primarily in Pennsylvania in his teenage years. By age 18, he had earned enough money to pay for his mother and the rest of his siblings to come to America.

By 1906, his business remained strong, becoming Planters Peanuts. Seven years later, while in search of a larger and better quality peanut, Obici moved his business to Suffolk, VA.

He married Louise in 1916. It was in that same year where Obici created a marketing character that remains today…Mr. Peanut. The original sketch was done by a 13-year-old student at Suffolk High School who was paid $5. Those sketches are now housed at the Smithsonian Institute.

Another marketing success followed in 1923 when Obici opted to have his peanuts sold in cellophane bags. It was known as the “5-cent lunch.” Vacuum-sealed cans filled with roasted peanuts hit the market in 1928.

Betts noted that Obici entrenched himself into the Suffolk lifestyle by becoming a member of many different civic clubs and organizations. During World War II he helped raise millions of dollars to aid the American effort.

“He was the first businessman in Suffolk to reduce the work week from 50 hours to 40 hours,” Betts said.

Obici eventually purchased 250 acres of land near Driver on the Nansemond River and built his estate, Bay Point Farms.

In 1938, Louise Obici died at the age of 74. Mr. Obici passed away in 1947 at age 69. By the terms of his will and trust, he provided all of the funds to build the Louise Obici Memorial Hospital.

“It was a charitable hospital, meaning those who could afford to pay did and those who could not afford it didn’t have to worry because the funds from his estate would pay the difference,” Betts noted.

In 1985, the Obici Foundation was created to hold funds from the estate that were designated for the hospital. Assets were used to fund capital projects and to purchase needed equipment at the hospital.

In 2002, the Obici Foundation paid $30 million towards a project to replace the original Louise Obici Memorial Hospital. Sentara paid the remaining costs of that project and took over the operation of the medical facility. The sale to Sentara netted the Obici Foundation $70 million. That sale, along with the remaining funds ($30 million) in the Obici Foundation plus investment interest since that time equals the $144 million now in the care of the Obici Healthcare Foundation.

“As required, there’s a five percent payout, roughly seven million dollars, each year that goes out into the local community,” Betts said. “We have distributed a little over $61 million to organizations since 2006. The largest recipient annually is the Western Tidewater Free Clinic in Suffolk.”

He praised the Foundation’s Board of Directors, noting their diverse membership who do great work year in and year out to be good stewards of the funds available to disperse annually.

“We do have Community Engagement Grants, annual discretionary funds from $500 to $5,000 for non-profits with healthcare related projects,” Betts said. “Please reach out and make an application.”

Ed Morgan, President of the Chamber, opened the event by welcoming all in attendance.

“We’ve talked for many years that one of the biggest challenges we have as a Chamber is getting people involved in what we do,” Morgan said. “It’s good to see a great showing here tonight. It’s a welcomed sight and we welcome even more members to get involved with the Chamber and our committees and boards.”

Morgan thanked Marinda Lane for her work in putting together a “fantastic event.” He also thanked Marie Allen and Cheryl Hobbs for their efforts.

Allen conducted a drawing at the conclusion of the event for a free membership in the Chamber. She also promoted the recent publication of the Chamber’s first magazine.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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