Mr. & Mrs. Bonner established the Bonner Foundation with the hope and, indeed the expectation, that the impact of their support would be far-reaching in the areas of hunger and education.
Drawing on their own personal experiences, as well as the knowledge of friends and visionaries in the philanthropic and educational communities, the Bonners created the Crisis Ministry and Bonner Scholar Programs. These programs promised that their expectations would be met.
The Crisis Ministry Program does more than give grants to food banks--it distributes the money through congregations of all faiths and asks that they become involved in feeding the hungry. Similarly, the Bonner Scholars Program does more than provide scholarships—it gives students the impetus to become involved in changing their communities.
Both Bertram and Corella Bonner's personal journeys played a significant role in the development and direction of the Foundation.
Bertram Bonner, describes his wife, was born "without a dime" in 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. At the early age of 22, after putting himself through college at night, Mr. Bonner was named Head Treasurer for Hetty Green Banks. He had been working with Ms. Green since the beginning of his teenage years and had learned much from the eccentric and well-known woman. As Head Treasurer he made many loans to New York builders, which inspired him to become involved in the real estate business. He was successful from the beginning, but in the stock market crash of '29, like so many others, he lost everything.
But, unlike others, with hard work and a tremendous acumen for business, Mr. Bonner quickly made back his fortune. His career spanned six decades and can be credited with the building of more than 30,000 homes and apartments.
Corella Bonner, like her husband, was born into poverty. She began her journey in the rural south—in the town of Eagan, TN. As a fourteen-year-old, after living in coal-mining towns in West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, Corella Allen, along with her mother, sought opportunity in the northern city of Detroit. Arriving penniless, the young Allen soon found work as a cashier at a cafeteria, attended Wayne State University at night, and made sure that her younger siblings went to school.
She worked her way up from cashier to manager and was eventually transferred to the Statler chain's New York hotel. It was there she met Bertram Bonner. They were married, four years later, in 1942.
The Bonners' involvement in community service emanated from their early work providing food for destitute families in Fort Lauderdale, where the Bonner family lived. When the Bonners moved in 1956 to Princeton, NJ they began a broad-based ecumenical crisis ministry program housed in the Nassau Presbyterian Church.
In 1989 Mr. Bonner hired Wayne Meisel as the founding president of the Bonner Foundation. In 1990, after working with the late John B. Stephenson, President of Berea College, Bertram and Corella established the first Bonner Scholars Program at Berea College. It was designed to provide "access to higher education and an opportunity to serve" for students in the program. During this period, the Bonners also started the Crisis Ministry Program to, in Mr. Bonners words, "help the person who is hurting."
After Mr. Bonner passed away in 1993, Mrs. Bonner traveled extensively to campuses in the Bonner Network. Beloved by everyone she came into contact with, she made an especially big impression o the college students who her generosity and vision. She received ten honorary degrees as well as the 1998 Award for Voluntarism and Philanthropy from the Council for Independent Colleges which recognized that "through the Bonner Program, you have created powerful opportunities for students to develop strong leadership skills as they link lessons learned in the classroom with knowledge gained from service and volunteerism."
Mrs. Bonner continued to carry on their legacy of hope, service, and gratitude until her death in July 2002. Her memorial service featured tributes given by students, staff, and college leaders who captured a slice of her eventful and fulfilling life.