by Monte Sahlin
By Visitor Staff Nadia McGill and Taashi Rowe, February 13, 2014
Stewart Bainum, founder of Choice Hotels International, the second-largest hotel chain in the world, died yesterday following complications with pneumonia at age 94. But Bainum wasn’t known only for his business acumen. A member of Sligo Church in Takoma Park, Maryland, Bainum was also known for his commitment to Adventist education.
The denomination “mourns the loss of a true friend, generous benefactor and model Christian servant,” said Dr. Hamlet Canosa, vice president for education in the Columbia Union Conference. Bainum’s "tireless efforts to ‘make a real difference’ in the academic pursuits of the young will be heralded for years to come and will continue to be deeply appreciated by all who were directly or indirectly touched by his kindness and support.”
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. “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 was forced to drop out as a student at Mount Vernon Academy (MVA) in Ohio in the 1930s because he could not pay the tuition. With no real prospects and only three dollars in his pocket, he hitchhiked to Washington, DC, 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), ultimately settling in the capital area.
Due to self-discipline, perseverance, a strong work ethic, vision and business acumen, Stewart 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.
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. The organization grew and it’s mission and objectives expanded, 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 southeast 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.”
Since the foundation'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 republished from a November 2011 Visitor magazine article. The article can be seen here: www.columbiaunionvisitor.com/bainum/