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Giving to Make a Difference

Board member and fund holder looks back.  

“Actually, the community foundation found me.”

In 2023, Helen Mills retired from UGA after 32 years as Associate Vice President for Public Service and Outreach, Emeritus. But that’s not the only job she had over the years.  

Fifteen years ago, she accepted another role — board secretary for what was then a very new organization, the Athens Area Community Foundation.  

“We were the last metro statistical area in Georgia that did not have a foundation,” explained Helen. “And we were also starting pretty much at the beginning of a recession. So, that made it a challenge. But we had people on that initial committee who had been involved in other community foundations or other foundations in general. They knew the concept and the value. It was a matter of weathering those first few years and helping the community understand what it was all about.” 

Launched as an initiative of One Athens a few years before, the foundation officially took root in 2008. Judge Steve Jones served as the first board chair. Delene Porter became the first executive director. 

“Steve Jones asked me to serve on the initial committee, and I said I would serve any way I could,” she explained. “I was secretary for the board meetings for the first three or four years, and I learned about the community foundation as we went along. I think we all did.” 

But Helen didn’t just invest her time over the years. She also became a fundholder.  

Helen and her late husband Milton set up a family fund earmarked for causes they love. This fund supports their church, First Baptist Church of Athens; Athens Y Camps, where she and Milton met as teenagers; and Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center, where Milton’s mom worked as a head RN when it was Athens General. 

“Those three are near and dear to our hearts,” explained Helen. “And we thought this fund was a good vehicle for legacy giving long after we’re gone.” 

Helen also worked with the community foundation to create a scholarship fund after Milton passed away in 2020.  

Now in its second year, the Hugh Milton Mills III Scholarship Fund offers two $1,000 scholarships to benefit Cedar Shoals High School students pursuing any type of technical study related to auto mechanics.  

“Milton was the first teacher in auto mechanics at Cedar Shoals High School beginning in 1972,” explained Helen. “And when he died, I heard so many stories about his impact — not just how to fix something, but also life skills, how to treat people, and how to do things right. I thought the scholarship would be a way to continue to make an impact.” 

Helen said she loved seeing the effects of these scholarships first-hand. 

“Just seeing the gratitude of those two students and getting to interact with them and their family and hear their stories [was so rewarding],” she added.  

Whether it's a scholarship fund or a family fund, the Athens Area Community Foundation offers many options. 

“One of the things I’ve told people over and over again is that the community foundation not only helps you make connections, but it also helps you take care of all the back office stuff,” Helen said. “You don’t have to make any reports. It just makes it so much easier.” 

And part of what makes that giving so doable is the foundation’s great staff, said Helen. 

“I’ve really appreciated the growth of the foundation since its inception,” she said. “And I’ve appreciated what [President and CEO] Sarah [McKinney] and all the staff have done. They always have their ears and minds open to connecting a person’s interests in the community with the needs in the community.” 

It's that love of community — and a deep-rooted joy of giving — that motivates Helen, too. 

“This is the community I grew up in, and I want to see it do well,” she said. “[Giving back] is what we’re taught in our faith. Plus, you can’t take it with you. So, why not use it to the benefit of somebody else or some organization? It gives me joy to do that.”

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The Athens Area Community Foundation is a public grantmaking foundation that builds community by encouraging long term giving through funds created by caring donors.

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