TAMPA — For Ralph Smith, the partnership between his nonprofit organization – Computer Mentors – and Bank of America has been crucial to the former's growth for more than 10 years.
So when the bank's Tampa Bay president Bill Goede asked Smith Thursday to participate with other nonprofit leaders in discussions about economic mobility in the area, he readily accepted the invite.
But Goede had other plans — $600,000 worth, in fact.
That was the total amount of grants awarded to Computer Mentors and 23 other local organizations at a surprise gathering at the bank's Westshore offices. Goede shared the news and then asked each person representing the different nonprofits to reach under their seats and pull out an envelope to learn their share of the grant.
The grant money will support the nonprofit's programs and policies that are focused on economic mobility, Goede said.
"What these organizations do so well is they try to connect people to the tools that help make their lives so much better," he said. "That builds people up."
Smith, founder and executive director of Computer Mentors, said he was caught off guard completely.
"I was ready for the community conversation and then there's this big surprise," he said. "I'm overwhelmed."
Grant recipients include Metropolitan Ministries, the Hillsborough Education Foundation and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay. Brandon's Emergency Care Help Organization (ECHO) and Junior Achievement of Tampa Bay also received grants.
ECHO executive director Eleanor Saunders said the $25,000 grant she received will fully fund the nonprofit's Jobs for Jobs program, which provides training, resume help and job fairs for clients. The program also utilizes ECHO's social entrepreneurship efforts to help the clients gain important job skills.
"All of us in the room have the same common goal of providing opportunities for people to provide for themselves," Saunders said. "To be in the room with like-minded people was great, and then to have Bank of America say, 'thank you' was awesome.
"It was like Christmas morning."
Junior Achievement will use its grant dollars to continue supporting the "Sharks" entrepreneurial after school program for kids at Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School in North Tampa and Hillsborough Community College in Brandon. The program focuses on guidance and provides information on topics relevant to high school completion and post-secondary education and employment.
Computer Mentors, founded in 1997 as a volunteer project with Smith and five students, offers classes to inner city students where they learn tech skills, earn I.T. certifications, and are introduced to I.T. careers.
It has served more than 1,500 and boasts a staff of managers and mentors. About 180 students currently are enrolled in its programs, Smith said.
Smith said Computer Mentors will use its $30,000 award to finance its Kids Code and TEEN-Tech programs. The grant will help make up for some funding the organization lost last year that it has been unable to replace, he said.
Often, investors want to see huge outcomes from nonprofits from which they partner. But as a small agency, Computer Mentors isn't able to produce the results desired, Smith said.
The bank's repeated investment into small nonprofits is a testament to its strong commitment to support , he said.
Patrick Sneed, executive director of the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association, said the association — which provides afterschool and summer programming — will use the $25,000 it received to boost its S.P.A.R.K program, which provides youth with workforce and career training, he said.
But the bank's assistance to local nonprofits goes beyond financial. It also offers guidance on board relations and organization, he said.
"They always go out and give us that support," Sneed said.
Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this story.