In May 2011, Leah Brown was preparing to take school supplies to Lawrence and Cullman counties and to visit children in Big Brothers Big Sisters impacted by the tornado outbreak in Alabama a month earlier.
Some of the children returned to homes with no power. Others had no home to return to.
Before leaving, the telephone in Brown’s Decatur office rang. The message that came following the death and destruction from the April 27, 2011, tornadoes drove another dagger through Brown’s heart.
Brown was told state funding for Big Brothers Big Sisters likely would be cut. She said she shut her office door, cried for about 15 minutes and thought, almost aloud, “I’ve got to go see my kids.”
Now in her 11th year as chief executive officer of the agency, Brown today is wondering how long her doors can remain open if more corporate sponsors, community leaders and individuals don’t step forward to help the nonprofit group.
“If it wasn’t for United Way, we would have been out of business two years ago,” Brown said.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Shoals in Sheffield and Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Alabama in Huntsville also have been on the brink of closing. But because of community support and fundraising, the agencies are surviving.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Morgan County, which also serves Lawrence, Winston and Cullman counties, provides community-based and school-based mentoring programs for children ages 5 to 15. In the communities, adult volunteers are matched with children who need assistance. Parents or guardians enroll the children in the program. Once matched, the adult remains with the child through the entire process. If a child is matched with a mentor at 15, he or she can remain in the program until age 18.
The telephone call Brown received came from a state official who helps administer Mentoring Children of Promise, a federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services distributed in Alabama through the Children’s Trust Fund. It was the lifeblood of eight Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies in the state.
“From 2004 through 2010, we received between $50,000 and $70,000 per year from the Children’s Trust Fund, which focuses on mentoring children of prisoners,” Brown said. “That’s about half our budget.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Morgan County has a 2013 budget of $90,000. It had been set at $160,000 before the loss of its top contributor. United Way donated $50,000 last year, and on March 9 Brown requested $60,000 for Fiscal 2014. She said United Way usually makes decisions on all allocations by the middle of May.
“We had about $6,000 in a reserve account, but that’s been gone for more than a year now,” Brown said. “United Way and two key fundraisers are our only sources of income. I’ve squeezed every penny, but there’s nothing left.”
Brown said she continuously writes for grant funding and applied to state and federal agencies and foundations for about $200,000 last year. She said she is hopeful of receiving two small grants totaling $5,000.
The office, which once had six full-time employees, is down to two employees, Brown and program director Carrie Jones, and one part-time worker, Addie Thomison. Thomison once handled eight different school-based mentoring programs, but now there are only two, West Morgan schools in Trinity and Falkville schools.
“Her mileage check just from Winston County was significant,” Brown said. “We just couldn’t afford it anymore.”
Kathy Copeland once worked part time as match coordinator. After being laid off, she began volunteering her time “in support of any area that needs something.”
In addition to laying off people and cutting salaries of those that remain, Brown, in October 2011, started closing the office on Friday. Since high school students at West Morgan High come to West Morgan Elementary each week on Friday mornings to mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters, Brown volunteers her off time to work that day in Trinity.
“Each time kids meet at the schools, a staff member has to be there,” Brown said. “It is a structured program.”
Brown said that at its height in all four counties, the agency saw about 400 children in school-based and community-based mentoring programs, including those waiting to be matched with mentors. Now there are only about 75 students in school-based programs.
The Decatur office’s budget includes about $50,000 for salaries, which includes payroll taxes and health insurance, $10,000 for rent and utilities, and $8,000 for background checks for mentors and the program’s liability insurance.
Things had been just as bad in the Shoals area.
On Tuesday, Gina Mashburn will mark her first anniversary as chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Shoals. The agency serves Franklin, Colbert and Lauderdale counties.
Mashburn worked as a case manager at the agency from 1989 to 1996, and for 11 years ran the school-based mentoring program at Sheffield City Schools, which partners with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“It’s been hard times all around,” she said. “When the board hired me as CEO last year, we were pretty much broke. There was $84 in the bank.”
Mashburn said the board considered closing the doors at that time.
“We just got busy fundraising because the grants basically had evaporated,” she said. “Before I became CEO, there were seven employees. Now, we have two full time, myself and a case manager, Samantha Hamilton, and one part-time employee, Carla Belue.”
Mashburn said in 2009, the agency received $85,000 from the Children’s Trust Fund and in 2010 got $150,675.
“We did have a school-based mentoring program at Florence City Schools, but after we lost the (Children’s Trust Fund) grant, we couldn’t afford it anymore,” she said. “We also moved the office from Florence to Sheffield in January 2012.”
Mashburn said the agency replaced the mentoring program at Florence with Red Bay Schools.
“While Sheffield City Schools obtained a 12-year grant to fund its Big Brothers Big Sisters program through Sheffield City Schools’ Aim High mentoring program, Red Bay started the Red Bay Buddies last year after we obtained a corporate sponsor there in Sunshine Mills,” Mashburn said. “We employed a mentoring coordinator at Red Bay Schools.”
Mashburn said the agency held four fundraisers last year, the signature event being the Bowl for Kids Sake.
“My goal is to build fundraisers every year and get the community involved,” she said. “We know we can’t depend on grants, but I have faith we can depend on our community.”
Mashburn said she cut “everything to the bare bones,” even changing banks and canceling a post office box.
“At the end of 2012, we finished in the black with a net of $9,225,” she said. “We have a budget for 2013 of $117,769. That’s what we hope to bring in, and that’s probably what we’re gong to spend on salaries, rent, liability insurance, screening of volunteers and criminal records checks on adult mentors.”
Emmett Moore, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Alabama, said the Huntsville-based agency, which serves Madison, Limestone, Marshall and Jackson counties, almost closed twice last year, in June and again in October.
“But the community rallied around us both times and set the stage for what I believe is going to be a better 2013,” he said. “A combination of corporations stepping up and the growth of our special events fundraisers carried us.”
Moore said all three fundraisers increased in revenues last year, “and we also had contributions from private foundations that also were very helpful as well.”
Moore said his budget for 2012 was $256,000 and will be closer to $270,000 this year.
Brown said each Big Brothers Big Sisters agency is operated independently.
“My understanding is that the others are actually doing pretty good now,” she said.
She said she is banking on another big boost from the Wet Dog Triathlon on July 20 at Point Mallard. This will mark the 14th year the Decatur Jaycees has sponsored the event for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“Over the past five years, we have averaged between $15,000 and $17,000,” Brown said. “We have smaller fundraisers, such as the Celebrity Waiting Game at Logan’s Roadhouse, which we hope to do in April, and a yard sale in November in the parking lot of our office. We usually collect about $2,500 on each of those.”
Ronnie Thomas can be reached at 256-340-2438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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