For the last year or so, the Buhl Regional Health Foundation has been studying the health needs of the community. Now it’s gearing up to begin funding programs that will improve the lives of area residents.

The foundation opened its online grant application portal on Thursday and plans to award its first grants in October. The nonprofit foundation is charged with overseeing and distributing the more than $20 million that was left when the nonprofit Sharon Regional Health System was sold in 2014 to for-profit health care provider Community Health Systems. (The hospital is now owned by Steward Health Care System.)

“Our goal is to focus and invest in the people in our community who are impacted by health needs,’’ said Mickey Gula, the foundation’s executive director. “Health plays a role in where people live, work, play and their eating habits,’’ she added.

Last October, the foundation hosted more than 170 leaders representing 94 agencies and organizations from around the region at a community forum, where they discussed priorities, possibilities and a plan of action for the new foundation.

The community’s health needs go beyond stethoscopes and X-ray equipment. The heroin epidemic is an example.

“It’s such a big issue,’’ Gula said. “It’s come up in every single group we’ve approached.’’

Drug abuse takes a physical toll but also has an economic impact.

“You hear over and over again that people looking to get a job can’t because they can’t pass drug tests,’’ she said.

Even transportation affects health and health care. It’s one thing to have a doctor’s appointment, but that may not mean much if a patient can’t get there for lack of transportation, Gula said.

In direct response to those who attended the community forum, the foundation came up with a dual focus for its first cycle of grant funding. Programs that aim to provide better access to health care or that address mental and physical health needs will be considered for grants. All grant applications must focus on positively affecting one or both of those needs within the community.

Interested 501(c)(3) agencies and public charities are invited to apply for the first round of grants. The primary service area includes Clark, Farrell, Greenville, Mercer, Hermitage, Sharon, Sharpsville, Transfer, West Middlesex, and Wheatland in Pennsylvania and Brookfield, Hubbard and Masury in Ohio. The secondary service area consists of parts of eastern Ohio, northern/eastern Mercer County, and northern Lawrence County.

According to a news release, the Buhl Regional Health Foundation Online Grant Portal streamlines the application process and provides an impartial presentation format for applicants. It also provides the foundation staff, grants committee, and board of directors, who are responsible for recommending and approving grants for funding, with a controlled and structured tool that will guide them through the grant review cycle timeline.

Details about how to apply, an instructional video, and a link to log in to the system, are available on the foundation website – Only applications submitted through the portal will be considered.

After the first grant cycle, grants will be awarded twice a year – in March and September.

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