Dekko Foundation to move to Community Learning Center

The Dekko Foundation, a private family foundation started in 1981 in Kendallville, Indiana, by the late businessman and philanthropist Chester E. Dekko, will move its offices to the Community Learning Center this year.

The Dekko Foundation’s board of directors, comprising members of Mr. Dekko’s family, has endorsed the move because of its potential to advance the foundation’s mission of fostering economic freedom through education. The spirit of collaboration that lies at the heart of the Community Learning Center and the proximity to organizations that work directly with young people will allow the foundation to be more effective in carrying out Mr. Dekko’s vision.

“We are excited that residents of Kendallville and Noble County have come together to support the Community Learning Center as it endeavors to assist individuals of all ages through lifelong learning and skill development,” said Thomas Leedy, president of the Dekko Foundation. “Working alongside agencies at the CLC that are striving to remove barriers to economic freedom will make us a stronger foundation.”

The new office, which will be on the third floor of the Community Learning Center, will accommodate the foundation’s nine-person staff and have spaces that can be shared with other community organizations.

“At the Community Learning Center, we have the opportunity to learn from agencies working hard every day to support young people as they build the skills, knowledge, and character that are fundamental to them growing up to become self-sufficient adults and ultimately capable of achieving economic freedom,” Leedy said. “That knowledge will help inform our role as a funder and benefit our mission.”

The Dekko Foundation has been among the community members and organizations that for more than a year have been collaborating to make the Community Learning Center project a reality. Recent milestones have included the announcement of the first seven agencies that will offer programs and occupy space inside the facility, and the transfer of ownership of the property from the City of Kendallville to The Community Learning Center, Inc. Earlier this month, the Community Learning Center hosted an open house that provided a first look at the improvements that have been made to the facility and allowed individuals to connect with program providers.

The Dekko Foundation is providing financial support for the Community Learning Center’s ongoing renovations and operations. Leedy sits on the board of directors of The Community Learning Center, Inc., a nonprofit organization that was formed in 2019 to oversee the facility and surrounding grounds.

“Kendallville, Noble County, and Northeast Indiana have recognized the incredible opportunity the Community Learning Center has to be a catalyst for lifelong learning, building skills, expressing creativity, and improving well-being through its multigenerational offerings,” Leedy said. “It’s because of that enthusiasm for the CLC’s mission — Connecting Communities. Strengthening Lives. Securing Futures. — that our board has chosen to support this project, and it’s why they’re confident this move will help carry on Mr. Dekko’s legacy.”

That legacy extends back to 1925 when Chester E. Dekko was born in Ada, Minnesota. Growing up during the Great Depression helped instill in Mr. Dekko a strong work ethic, a deep appreciation for how education can improve one’s standing in life, and a bold entrepreneurial spirit. Mr. Dekko and his business partner, Lyall Morrill, devised an innovative wiring harness for refrigerators and started Lyall Electric in 1952. Under Mr. Dekko’s leadership, the business grew to have a significant presence in several manufacturing sectors and was renamed Group Dekko, with more than 2,500 employees in four states and Canada. Following Mr. Dekko’s passing in 1992, his entire estate was transferred to the foundation.

The Dekko Foundation supports communities where Mr. Dekko had business and personal interests. That includes six counties in Northeast Indiana, five counties in south-central Iowa, Norman County, Minnesota, and Limestone County, Alabama.

“Our commitment to these communities remains as strong as ever,” Leedy said. “The men and women who worked for Mr. Dekko helped make Group Dekko successful, and the foundation will continue to support young people in these communities so they can be successful in becoming self-sufficient and economically free. In addition, we hope that what we’ve learned by being involved in the Community Learning Center project can be a resource for these communities as they advance themselves.”

Moving to the Community Learning Center will mark the start of an exciting new chapter for the Dekko Foundation as it prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2021.

“It’s remarkable to reflect on the impact Mr. Dekko’s vision of economic freedom has had over nearly 40 years in the communities that meant so much to him,” Leedy said. “Moving the foundation to the Community Learning Center will help ensure that vision carries on for another 40 years — and beyond.”

Challenges kids face are great, but so too is commitment to overcome them

By Barry Rochford, strategic communication officer

So many children face so many obstacles to growing up into confident, independent adults — maturing into women and men who demonstrate compassion to their neighbors, are capable of contributing to their communities, and find themselves engaged in a fulfilling vocation.

Indiana Youth Institute’s recent Kids Count Conference in Indianapolis, which brought together more than 1,000 professionals from across the state involved in various aspects of youth development, underscored the perils young people face every day.

It also was a welcome reminder there are many, many Hoosiers striving to make children’s lives brighter. Every day.

Make no mistake, the task is daunting. Problems such as drugs, poverty, and unhealthy behaviors remain perniciously embedded in our culture, but they bear newer, greater dangers for young people. Drugs, for example, are refined and made more addictive. Advances in imaging techniques allow us to take a picture of a young person’s brain and see how living in a high-stress, unstable environment inhibits its growth. Even as fewer Hoosier students are smoking cigarettes now, many more of them have turned to vaping.

This generation of young people is growing up in a world unknown to their parents and grandparents. Technology — notably in the form of phones and tablets — is being used as a pacifier. You’ve no doubt seen it: A parent hands a “screen” to a fussy toddler to quiet him. There’s no ill intent behind the decision, just a desire to comfort the child. But when that screen flicks on, part of the child’s brain flicks off. The device encourages the child to become disengaged and disassociated from the human interactions occurring around him, and it’s happening during the period of his life that’s most critical to his brain’s development.

Social media, which has brought people together across cultures and continents, can cause young people to feel alienated and isolated when it’s bent into a tool for bullying. Teachers and school counselors now find themselves helping students navigate the choppy waters of friendships made more fraught by Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and the like because the students lack relationship skills forged by face-to-face interactions with others.

The Kids Count Conference provides a forum for Indiana Youth Institute to preview its upcoming Kids Count Data Book that tracks the well-being of Hoosier youths in four areas: family and community, health, economic, and education. The upcoming 2019 Data Book contains a mixed bag of results, just as it has in previous years. Across all four areas, Indiana ranks 28th among states. Most concerning, the state ranks 48th for child maltreatment; 43rd in the number of youths in juvenile detention, and 43rd in infant mortality. Indiana, however, fares well in other benchmark categories, including fourth-grade reading proficiency (seventh among states), high housing burdens (10th), and high school graduation (13th).

Dr. Christopher Emdin, professor, author, and creator of the #HipHopEd social media movement, speaks at Indiana Youth Institute’s 2018 Kids Count Conference.

With all the challenges facing young people, it would be easy to throw our collective hands in the air because the work to overcome them is just too hard. And yet, as much as the Kids Count Conference is an acknowledgement of the issues that affect the healthy development of children, it is a celebration and affirmation of the many, many schools and organizations that engage, educate, and prepare our young people for the future.

It is that hoped-for future that drives those in youth development and compels them to do more. Chester E. Dekko, who created the Dekko Foundation in 1981, believed when young people have access to an education that helps them grow in skills, knowledge, and character, it prepares them to lead a life of independence and self-sufficiency. That’s why he gave the foundation its mission of fostering economic freedom through education. The principles underlying his mission have stood the test of time and are as applicable in 2018 as they were when he was growing up in Minnesota during the Great Depression.

The foundation, however, cannot do it alone. It is only through the work of partners that the mission of economic freedom through education can be realized. They are the ones working with young people. Every day. They are the ones doing the difficult and often unheralded job of building skills, knowledge, and character. Every day.

Yes, our young people will continue to face significant obstacles as they make the long journey to adulthood. But we should be encouraged there are so many caring adults and organizations throughout Indiana who understand those challenges, are passionate and committed, and stand ready to serve them.

Every day.

(Note: If you would like to read the 2019 Indiana Kids Count Data Book Snapshot, you can download it here.)

Working together to promote youth philanthropy

By Barry Rochford, strategic communication officer

The National Center for Family Philanthropy ( published a great article about our partnerships with community foundations in our grantmaking areas to encourage young people to get involved in philanthropy.

Our Kimberly Schroeder was among those interviewed for the article, which also featured the Community Foundation of Noble County’s Jenna Ott and the Community Foundation of Whitley County’s September McConnell. In the article, Kimberly explained the importance of getting young people engaged with philanthropy.

“The grantmaking is some of the most important work they do,” she said. “We give them the power to affect their community and they take that responsibility seriously.”

You can read the full story here.

How do we look?

By Barry Rochford, strategic communication officer

Since you’re here, you may have had this thought: The website looks different.

Well, you’re right. We’ve updated to a responsive site so it performs better on computers, tablets and phones, and we’ve made some small tweaks that hopefully make the site more visually appealing and easier to navigate.

The former site wasn’t old, per se, but it was created at a time when more people were using desktops and laptops to hop around the Internet. These days, most people are apt to look us up on their phone’s browser instead of sitting down at their desk.

You’ll see that our homepage has changed to emphasize our mission of economic freedom. Since 1981, that has been the reason behind everything we do for young people from birth to age 18. But what is economic freedom? What does that mean to us? The new homepage betters tells that story.

Yet for all the changes, the website has stayed largely the same — and that’s important, because for our grantseekers and grant recipients, our website is where they go to complete their applications and reporting requirements. That’s why the “Apply Now!” and “My Account” buttons continue to be featured prominently at the top of the homepage.

In addition, information about our beliefs, our grantmaking and our proactive initiatives remains unchanged. Those pages are an important resource for visitors to the site who want to learn more about us and our mission, our grantmaking criteria and process, our proactive work, our board and staff, and our founder, Mr. Chester E. Dekko.

I hope you like the updated look. Please feel free to look around, kick the tires (so to speak), and let me know your thoughts and suggestions for making our website even better. You can email me at or call me at 260-347-1278, ext. 115.

One ambitious mission; two unique ways to get there


Most people in this area know the name Dekko Foundation.

A few understand economic freedom as the mission that Chester E. Dekko left us.

We’ve worked with, and supported, many organizations in the communities we serve.  They know us, but we recognize the general public may not. We want you to know more of our story.

You might be familiar with our more well-publicized work, where we invest in grant proposals from leaders of schools, nonprofits and communities.  We call this strategy responsive grantmaking.  Responding to proposals from the communities we serve helps us build strong relationships and gather ideas on ways to achieve our mission.

What fewer people are familiar with, though, is another strategy we use to achieve our mission.  We call this approach proactive grantmaking.  Through proactive grantmaking, we don’t wait for someone to send us a grant proposal.  Instead, we seek out ideas and opportunities to invest in projects we believe will bring us closer to our mission.

Our investment in Oak Farm Montessori School is an example of our proactive approach to grantmaking.  We’re often asked about our investment in Oak Farm, so we want to take this opportunity to tell you more about the school, how we believe it enriches northeast Indiana and why we support its work.

Montessori education takes Dekko Foundation closer to founder’s mission

Visitors to Oak Farm Montessori School might be surprised to see toddlers single-handedly prepare and serve a snack for their classmates.  Are these little ones superhuman?  No.  Their teacher simply prepared the classroom environment and then stepped back so the students could learn on their own.

Three-year-olds at Oak Farm spend much of their day engaged in work, or lessons, of their own choice.  They also care for their classroom’s pets and houseplants, and make sure that the area is clean for the next day.

Older students care for farm animals and grow their own food along with their academic studies.  Oak Farm high schoolers plan, market and operate a bike shop.

“It’s a beautifully dynamic way to teach,” commented Megan O’Sullivan, Oak Farm’s Head of School.  “We are nurturing each child’s dignity and growth by preparing stimulating learning environments.  Through it all, children emerge confident, competent and hopeful.”

Students at work

Work is central, not just at Oak Farm but also to the Montessori Method overall.  This method of teaching emphasizes:

  • Independence
  • Freedom of movement
  • Cooperation
  • Education at each child’s unique pace
  • Learning in harmony with others.

Maria Montessori was an Italian teacher and physician who lived from 1870-1952.  She developed the Montessori Method based on her scientific observations of children from birth through adulthood.

Dr. Montessori’s approach has been used across the world for more than 100 years.  Montessori education is based on a view of each child as naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating their own learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared environment.

Relevance of Montessori education today

Montessori education, with its hands-on educational experiences, has a fundamental and timeless appeal even (and perhaps especially) in today’s age of technology.  According to O’Sullivan, “We hear from parents that our school is a safe place—like home—where children gain responsibility, learn from their mistakes and understand that there are consequences to their choices.”

“Montessori students are known for being open-minded and open-hearted individuals,” O’Sullivan continued.  “They’re used to working with other people to solve problems.”

“In the past, farm work was the way many children built a work ethic and gained important employment skills,” said Tom Leedy, Dekko Foundation president.  “Rural young people learned responsibility by caring for animals.  They soaked up economics by buying supplies at the lowest price and helping market crops at the highest price.  For the most part, young people are not exposed to farm work anymore.  Montessori education is one way that young people can practice and develop those important skills.”

Founding Oak Farm

Oak Farm was founded in the year 2000 by the late Lorene Dekko Salsbery.  Phil Salsbery was married to Lorene until her death.  He commented, “Lorene saw the tremendous difference that a Montessori education made with our own kids as they attended Three Rivers Montessori (near Fort Wayne).  She developed a passion for offering that same type of education for the children of rural families and families of less financial means.  She wanted the school to benefit all kids.”

Lorene was the daughter of Chester E. Dekko, who established the Dekko Foundation.  Salsbery recalled, “Lorene’s dad had a strong belief in an ancient saying by Epictetus, ‘Only the educated are free.’  She believed in her dad’s mission of fostering economic freedom through education, but she dove in at the opposite end.”

“Lorene wanted the best education.  One that would not only provide the three R’s but also help kids to be problem solvers and independent thinkers,” Salsbery continued.  “She wanted an education where teachers are there to facilitate and not to direct.  To her, Montessori was the answer.”

Using her own time, contacts and talent, Lorene began Oak Farm. She used her own money too.  Over time, she transformed a farmhouse, a few outbuildings and acres of bare ground along Lemper Road southeast of Avilla into a groundbreaking educational opportunity for the children of northeast Indiana.

“There is a lot of pride for me in what Lorene did in starting the school,” Salsbery stated.  “Lorene’s legacy was her passion for kids and what is best for them.”

Support from the Dekko Foundation

As Oak Farm grew over time (from seven students its first year to 276 today), more people began to take notice of the school and better understand the value this new educational choice offered to the community.  The Dekko Foundation board of directors also came to deeply understand the connection between Oak Farm and the mission that Chester E. Dekko set for his foundation.

In the year 2000, the presence of a new rural school that was neither public nor parochial was a significant change for northeast Indiana.  And change brings about questions.   “This has never been about competition or about public schools vs. private,” Leedy commented.  “The Dekko Foundation’s support of Oak Farm is about demonstrating another way to educate children.  It is about helping to meet as many of children’s educational needs as possible.”

“Oak Farm teaches young people to think critically and solve problems from a very young age,” Leedy continued.  “When you have an individual who can think and solve problems, you have a great basis for our foundation’s mission—economic freedom.”

Salsbery, who also serves as a Dekko Foundation board member, agreed.  “Schools like Oak Farm teach in ways that are more holistic,” he said. “By helping children build independence, solve problems and practice critical thinking, you offer such a good foundation for life and work.  You can’t teach attitude and character, but you can teach skills.  Arming kids with soft skills gives them a leg up in the world of work.”

“The Dekko Foundation’s support helps Oak Farm stay true to the Montessori philosophy,” commented Lauren Moyer, the school’s CFO.  “Their support means we don’t have to rely on outside sources or conform to outside expectations.  We can stick to the pure Montessori philosophy and offer our students all of its benefits.”

“It’s so interesting to hear what our former students have to say about their time at Oak Farm,” Moyer concluded. “It’s always something like, ‘I miss Oak Farm.  But I was SO prepared for what came next.’ ”

Dekko Foundation’s other proactive investments

Through our proactive grantmaking, we don’t wait for someone to send us a grant proposal.  Instead, we offer to support work we believe will help us achieve our mission.  Oak Farm Montessori School is just one of our foundation’s many proactive investments.  Learn more about these investments through the links below:

If you would like to learn more about our founder, Chester E. Dekko, we encourage you to visit our website and watch a video of his life and his motivation for starting the Dekko Foundation.

To learn more about the foundation, please don’t hesitate to contact us at 347-1278.