Speedway Children's Charities Sonoma helps local nonprofits in need

Over the past 22 years, the Sonoma Valley nonprofit has donated $7.6 million to Sonoma County organizations like the LIME Foundation, Sonoma Family Meal, Redwood Empire Food Bank, Fence at the Top and Food for Thought.|

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In 1982, following the death of his 7-month-old son, O. Bruton Smith — founder and then-chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports — established Speedway Children's Charities. He defined the charity's mission as caring "for children in educational, financial, social and medical need in order to help them lead productive lives."

More than four decades later, Speedway Motorsports — which owns Sonoma Raceway and 10 other major speedways around the country — has donated a total of $68 million nationwide through its charitable arm, Speedway Children's Charities. More than 10% of that amount, a whopping $7.6 million, has been distributed to nonprofits in Sonoma County from 2001, the year the Sonoma branch of Speedway Children’s Charities was established, through December 2023.

Last year alone the Sonoma branch gave $230,000 to 40 county nonprofits, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley and Sonoma-Marin, the LIME Foundation, Sonoma Family Meal, Redwood Empire Food Bank, Fence at the Top and Food for Thought.

"Our main priority is critical needs," said Courtney Kiser, Director of Speedway Children's Charities Sonoma. "We support organizations — everything from food banks to shelters to emergency medical services — that provide what's necessary to keep children and families alive, safe and healthy."

After moving to Sonoma, she joined Sonoma Raceway's marketing department in 2015 and transitioned to Speedway Children's Charities in 2021.

The charity's focus remains steadfastly on children and families in communities around the nation that surround the eleven Speedway Motorsports-owned raceways. Those properties are Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway, Dover Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Each of these raceways is home to an independent chapter of Speedway Children's Charities. Each chapter coordinates with the national office but operates with latitude about how to raise and award funds. The money raised by each chapter is distributed only within its community.

"In other words all the money we raise in Sonoma County goes directly to the Sonoma chapter of Speedway Children's Charities,“ Kiser said. ”At the end of each year we distribute that money to Sonoma County nonprofits, and we work hard to ensure that every single dollar is put to good use."

Helping struggling families, food banks

A crucial underpinning to the overall charity's success is that each chapter has leeway to identify the specific needs of its community.

"Needs are really different across the country," Kiser said. "They're all important, but they differ from one location to another — and from one year to another."

In Sonoma County, the most critical need this winter involves hunger.

"The food at organizations that provide meals doesn't just appear out of nowhere," Kiser said. "They pay for it. And when the price of food doubles at the grocery store, as it has, it's also doubling for these organizations. So you have a greatly increased need for food, but it's costing a much higher amount. The food banks are really struggling."

David Goodman, Hunger Relief Worker and CEOof Redwood Empire Food Bank, notes that food insecurity increased tremendously during the pandemic and has remained strong.

“Businesses closed down, people lost jobs and the curtain was pulled back on food insecurity,” he said. “More people than ever sought food assistance, busting the myth that only the very poor went hungry. People of all kinds were lining up for food in our communities — people who never thought they’d need assistance or didn’t even know it was available. Not just the homeless, but people who went to school, got a job, and worked hard found themselves in need.”

Goodman notes that, despite indicators that the economy is thriving and unemployment is low, increased numbers of people living on the margins are struggling.

“Speedway Children’s Charities has been a supporter of the Redwood Empire Food Bank since 2001,” he said, “ … helping us provide a quantity and quality of food that allows people to lead healthy lives. The most remarkable thing about Speedway Children’s Charities is that they ask for nothing in return. They trust that we will be excellent stewards of their philanthropy, which we are, and that’s it. They’re concerned about children’s well being, and so are we.”

Kiser points out that not only is the cost of food greater than before COVID-19, but donations have also decreased significantly.

"Since COVID, folks don't donate as much as they used to, so the money coming in from donations is way down,“ Kiser said. ”Organizations have to pay for staff, there's a housing crisis, so many things are creating a difficult tunnel for nonprofits."

Beyond the need for food, Kiser points out, children and their families need help in many other aspects of life, including shelter, employment, child care, education, overcoming abuse, legal issues, counseling and much more.

The nonprofits receiving grants from Speedway Children's Charities Sonoma help families and children with these and other issues.

For example, Conservation Corps North Bay and Santa Rosa-based LIME Foundationoffer work readiness programs to help youth learn the foundational skills they need to qualify for jobs.

"Kids may not be coming from stable homes, and may not have the resources they need to graduate from high school," Kiser said. "Work ready gives them the skills they need to get and hold a job."

Helping the next generation

Among its many charitable endeavors, the LIME Foundation provides free vocational training in the construction trades, helps graduates find employment and provides free construction services to low-income families. Program enrollment prioritizes the most vulnerable youth, including those involved in foster care and/or justice systems and those who are housing insecure.

"We love our work with Speedway Children's Charities," said LIME Foundation's Founder and Executive Director Letitia Hanke.

"We've been a grant recipient for a few years, and their support has been invaluable,“ Hanke said. ”It's allowed students to come through and finish the program and find great-paying jobs in the community. Their support has also allowed us to take the construction model and implement our NextGen Auto Academy, which will start in fall of 2024."

About the nonprofit

Since its inception in 2001, the Sonoma chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities has distributed $7.6 million to Sonoma County nonprofit charities geared to children and families. Funds are raised through events at Sonoma Raceway online donations, gifts, and other programs.

Location: Sonoma Raceway at 29355 Arnold Drive, Sonoma

More information: 707-933-3950, speedwaycharities.org/sonoma

Donate: speedwaycharities.org/donate

Tackling a completely different issue — child abuse — is Speedway Children's Charities grant recipient Forget Me Not Children's Services in Santa Rosa. The peaceful farm is a sanctuary for rescued farm animals and thousands of at-risk children have been helped over a three-decade span to help facilitate breaking the cycle of abuse. Through animal-assisted and horticultural therapeutic activities, children learn about kindness and empathy..

This spring, Sonoma’s Speedway Children's Charities will debut the Earl Broderick "Building Futures" Grant, aimed at helping young people who are interested in exploring a career in a STEAM-related field.

The $200,000 donation comes from the Earl Broderick trust.

“In addition to our annual grants and in tribute to Earl, who was a dear friend of the raceway, we'll announce a new 10-year grant,” said Kiser. “Each year, for 10 years, we will award $20,000 to one Sonoma County youth-based organization that directly supports STEAM education and/or leading youth toward a career in a STEAM-related field."

Community is all-in for a good cause

The charity also actively raises funds, chiefly through special events held at the Sonoma Raceway throughout the year. Most events are geared to major race weekends.

This year, with a major track repaving underway until spring, some events have been rescheduled. According to Kiser, the raceway will be operational for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in June.

While the track is being repaved, the speedway is getting creative with its other facilities. Earlier this month, for example, during the "Drive for Charity Autocross Show," the main paddock area was completely transformed for a new purpose.

“That was a brand new program for the charity," Kiser said. “The first time that we’ve offered autocross to the public as a fundraising opportunity. Coupled with the car show, it was such a great energy with everyone coming together to enjoy the track, socialize, and support kids in need.”

For Kiser, her young children, ages 7 and 9, enjoy helping their mom with her work, too.

"It's fun and rewarding to support the children of Sonoma County,“ she said. ”Every year we want to grow the list of charities we support. We want to support every organization we can. The more money we raise in a year, the more children we can help."

Sonoma Gives

Read more stories about locals giving back to their communities here.

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