Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington has suspended its school-based mentoring program because of declining dollars, a decision that affects 60 children in Bellingham schools.
The nonprofit's board of directors put School Buddies on hold for this school year. The board is grappling with a shrinking budget caused by a drop in grant funding and in donations because of an ailing economy.
"We're no different than any other nonprofit in this economy," said Sheila Connors, board president.
The board reduced the budget from $425,000 this year to $250,000 for next year.
"The board had to make some changes in order to keep the agency viable for the long term," Connors said. "We felt that if we closed, we couldn't recoup from that."
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington has been around for 32 years. Through its various programs, it matches adults who volunteer to serve as mentors for youth.
Its School Buddies program has been in area schools for at least 10 years.
The decision to suspend it was driven, in part, by the end of a federal grant through the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, which is part of the Department of Education.
That three-year grant ended in February 2011 and totaled $300,000. As the agency tried to replace those dollars, the economy turned sour - leading to more competition as more groups requested grants and donations from corporate and individual donors, according to Big Brothers Big Sisters officials.
The organization also has laid off three part-time employees and Bliss Goldstein, its CEO.
With fewer resources, Big Brothers Big Sisters is focusing on Community-Based Mentoring - the organization's original program with 90 children in Whatcom and Skagit counties - as well as its new Mother-2-Mother mentoring effort. The latter has $4,000 in federal seed money.
The School Buddies program was at Alderwood, Cordata, Happy Valley, Parkview, Roosevelt and Sunnyland elementary schools, as well as Kulshan, Whatcom and Shuksan middle schools. All participating schools were in Bellingham School District.
There is no School Buddies program in Skagit County.
"The future hope is to bring this program back in a way that mutually provides benefit in the schools, and allows the agency to efficiently make matches," Connors said. "If our board has anything to say about it, it will come back."
She praised the board for making a tough decision.
"They really stepped up to the plate," Connors said.
Under School Buddies, volunteer mentors - called "bigs" - met with their students - called "littles" - at school once a week during school hours for at least one school year. They played games, hung out or worked on homework.
"We have really loved having the program," said Jane Tromburg, principal at Parkview. "We hope it can come back, but we also understand what finances are like at this time."
Although the School Buddies program has been suspended, some of the matches are switching over to the Community-Based Mentoring Program, according to Colleen Haggerty, the former program director now serving as the executive director.
"To me, what that really talks about is the power of mentoring and how important it is, not only for the child but the mentors," Haggerty said.
Big Brothers Big Sisters hope to bring back School Buddies, with the community's help.
"Mentoring is so very, very vital to these at-risk youths," Connors said. "The community has helped us in the past, and we're hoping they'll continue to support us and understand that we want to be back in the schools as soon as possible."
HOW TO HELP
Tax-deductible donations to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington can be made at its website at bbbs-nw.org.
The nonprofit also has organized The Big Sock Hop, a fundraiser Saturday, Nov. 3, at Bellingham Golf & Country Club, 3729 Meridian St. Tickets are $95 per person.
Register and buy tickets online by going to bbbs-nw.org, and then clicking on the event. The event will include hors d'oeuvres, dinner, and silent and live auctions.
Doors open at 5:30 p.m. for registration and the silent auction. Dinner will be served at 7:15.
Sock Hop details: Lori McKnight at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-671-6400, ext. 103.
Reach KIE RELYEA at email@example.com or call 715-2234.