Adventist News

​Philanthropist Stewart Bainum Dies

Reprinted With Permission of the Columbia Union Visitor

Stewart Bainum, founder of Choice Hotels International, the second-largest hotel chain in the world, died on February 12 following complications with pneumonia. He was 94. But Bainum wasn’t known only for his business acumen. A member of Sligo Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Md., Bainum was also known for his commitment to Seventh-day Adventist education.

For more than 40 years, the Bainum family has operated the Commonweal Foundation and donating millions of dollars every year to support programs and projects that help disadvantaged youth across the country succeed academically.

Photo: James Ferry“One of our core beliefs at Commonweal Foundation is that, if you want to go far, you have to have an education. We believe that each individual has value and potential and deserves a quality learning environment. Our goal is to provide them with that.” Bainum shared in a 2011 Visitor article titled “Giving Back.”

Humble Beginnings

Bainum attended two Adventist schools in his formative years. He was forced to drop out as a student at Mount Vernon Academy (MVA) in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in the 1930s because he could not pay his tuition. With no real prospects and only $3 in his pocket, he hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., looking for work. Once there, he got a job as a plumber’s assistant, making 30 cents an hour.

After a year and a half in the city, he managed to save enough money to return and finish his studies at MVA. He continued his education at what is now Washington Adventist University (WAU) in Takoma Park, Maryland, ultimately settling in the greater Washington D.C. area.

Due to self-discipline, perseverance, a strong work ethic, vision and business acumen, Bainum grew more and more successful. He developed several businesses, including a plumbing and mechanical contracting company, and got into the apartment and office development industry. In 1951 he founded the Realty Investment Company, Inc.

After building his first motel in 1957, Bainum joined an association of independent hotel owners that he would eventually be asked to run. That association became Choice Hotels International, which is now the second largest hotel franchise company in the world. He is also the founder of ManorCare, which in 1998 became part of HCR ManorCare, the nation’s top nursing home corporation.

Turning Dreams Into Reality

Despite his achievements, Bainum never forgot his humble beginnings. In 1968 he created the College Fund, as it was originally named, as a means to give back to his community. He provided financially needy students with loans to help them pay for their college education.

Since then, he has grown the organization’s mission and objectives, changing not only its name in 1985 to the Commonweal Foundation, but also shifting its focus to support disadvantaged youth currently enrolled in secondary education.

The catalyst for this change came in 1988 when Commonweal was a key supporter of the “I Have a Dream” Program. Stewart agreed to pay the college tuition of 67 seventh-graders at Kramer Junior High School in Washington, D.C., if they finished high school. The results were spectacular! Nearly 75 percent of the 67 “Dreamers,” as they were called, graduated high school, compared to only 27 percent of their peers. In addition, of the 10 that Stewart sent to his alma mater, Mount Vernon Academy, nine graduated.

From this experience, he developed Commonweal’s Pathways to Success Program (PSP), through which he continues to provide low-income middle and high school students with scholarships to attend private, faith-based boarding and day schools selected by Commonweal.

“Both of my parents grew up in poverty,” explains Barbara, Bainum’s daughter and his successor at Commonweal, and also a Sligo church member. “Having the opportunity to go to boarding school, they really felt that it changed their lives … this had an immense impact on how the focus of the foundation has evolved.”

Helping Schools Help Students

Through Commonweal, the Bainums also provide schools with the resources they need to help students reach their potential, in the form of grants and multi-year service contracts. Some of this assistance has gone to meet school needs, including staffing shortfalls, staff training and development, and facility renovation.

Since Commonweal’s inception, the Bainum family has given thousands of scholarships to needy students, and they partner with, on average, approximately 39 schools each year, more than half of which are Seventh-day Adventist.

In addition to the PSP, Commonweal’s other programs help supplement and improve students’ chances of academic success. Through the Learning Support Program and Partners in Learning Program, students between kindergarten and 12th grade can get free tutoring to help improve their literacy rates and math skills.

Through the Grants Program, Commonweal staff manages the financial assistance they provide their partners. One such grant allows them to target community-based organizations focused on youth development; another empowers staff at PSP partner schools to get the training and technical assistance they need to increase student achievement.

The Commonweal Foundation continues to grow, and the family behind it remains dedicated to helping its students and partners succeed. As a matter of fact, says Barbara, the growth and development of their students and partnering organizations is essential to the foundation’s success. “As we move forward, our intent will be to be much more involved with our schools,” she explains. “I am gratified to lead the Commonweal Foundation, knowing that the work that we do embodies what my father wants to give back to his church and community.”

Portions of this article were reprinted from “Giving Back,” a November 2011 Visitor magazine article. Click here to read the article in its original format.

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