Photos: Courtesy of Open Hand

How SunTrust’s charitable efforts have made Atlanta a better place

The bank will merge with BB&T, which also has a long history of civic support

It was the most Atlanta disaster ever: A chunk of I-85 caught fire and crashed to the ground. While commuters pondered their drives with dread, Open Hand Atlanta executive director Matt Pieper feared thousands of seniors could go hungry.

With panic setting in, he answered his buzzing phone. SunTrust was on the line.

“One of the very first calls I got the night the bridge collapsed was from leadership at SunTrust saying, ‘What can we do to help you?’” Pieper said. “We were first and foremost in their minds.”

Open Hand prepares and delivers more than 5,500 meals daily to the ill and elderly. It’s located near the section of I-85 that was destroyed, and Pieper knew delivery drivers and kitchen workers could have trouble getting there. The day after the calamity, the Open Hand kitchen was full of SunTrust staffers in plastic gloves and hair nets, aprons tied over their corporate T-shirts, and Open Hand clients received their meals as usual.

Photos: Courtesy of Open Hand

“We had a cavalry of SunTrust employees,” Pieper said. “That just speaks volumes of how committed they are.”

SunTrust will merge with North Carolina-based BB&T, and the combined institution will be headquartered in Charlotte, the banks announced Thursday. As customers, employees — and fans of the Atlanta Braves, who play in SunTrust Park —consider changes to come, Atlanta’s philanthropic community is hailing the good SunTrust has done, and hopeful it continues.

SunTrust and the SunTrust Foundation provided $4.5 million in contributions last year in Atlanta. That doesn’t include individual employees’ giving or volunteer efforts. Since its start in 2008, the foundation has distributed $160 million in grants nationally to nonprofit organizations focused on financial education, financial counseling, career development/workforce readiness and small business/entrepreneurship. It’s a stalwart backer of area fundraisers like the annual Preservation Gala, benefiting the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.

“SunTrust has been a significant benefactor of the Georgia Trust over the years, supporting numerous programs and special events, the recent restoration of our historic headquarters (Rhodes Hall) and major accessibility improvements to our landscape,” said Georgia Trust President and CEO Mark C. McDonald. SunTrust will sponsor this year’s gala, set for March 2 at the historic Biltmore Hotel - the theme is “Bilt to Last.”

BB&T also has a strong history of civic support. After Hurricane Florence ravaged North Carolina last year, for example, the BB&T Charitable Fund announced it would distribute $1.5 million in grants to agencies including the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse. Its Atlanta presence includes the BB&T Atlanta Open, happening July 20-28 at Atlantic Station. That event benefits the Giving Kitchen and the Georgia Tennis Foundation.

Leslie Lenkowsky, Indiana University professor emeritus in public affairs and philanthropy, expects the merged financial entity will continue the legacy of civic generosity.

“When a retail company like a bank really requires goodwill at a local level, they’re going to remain involved,” he said. “They want to keep their name in front of the customer. They don’t want people to say, ‘That darn bank moved out of town and stopped giving, so I’m going to move to a different bank.’”

The SunTrust Private Wealth Management Sports & Entertainment Group for years has teamed with the T.J. Martell Foundation, which raises money for medical research, to sponsor its annual Atlanta Best Cellars Dinner. It’s supporting this year’s event, planned for Sept. 13 at the InterContinental hotel in Buckhead.

Joel Katz, powerhouse entertainment lawyer at Greenberg Traurig and chairman of the the T.J. Martell Foundation’s national board of trustees, has enjoyed a coast-to-coast relationship with SunTrust.

“SunTrust has been supportive of the foundation not only in Atlanta, but in Nashville and Los Angeles (where Martell also holds events) for nearly 10 years,” he said. “We enjoy working with businesses who are dedicated to making a lasting impact.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.