Big Brothers Big Sisters of NW Wash. needs merger to stay alive

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 14, 2013 

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington must merge with another organization to stay alive, its executive director said months after the nonprofit suspended a popular mentoring program in Bellingham schools to help shore up its finances.

"That's how dire it is," said Colleen Haggerty, executive director of the local organization, which helps youths in Whatcom and Skagit counties by matching them with adults - or "Bigs" - who serve as their mentors.

Merger talks are occurring with a local nonprofit, said Haggerty, who declined to identify that organization.

Savings would come from sharing overhead costs with the other nonprofit, such as for administrative structure and rent, Haggerty said, although Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington would keep its mission, identity and how it makes matches.

A merger could take up to a year. Until then, the organization hopes the community will help by donating $96,000.

"What we're finding is we're going through our reserves at a quicker rate than expected," Haggerty said. "It's because of that we're reaching out to the community."

The organization has been helping area youths - mentored kids are known as Littles - for 37 years. Among them is Kate Patera's 11-year-old son.

The Bellingham resident and single mother turned to the organization because she felt her son "needed some male mentoring and interaction that I couldn't provide as a woman."

"It's helped him understand and kind of figure out what it's like to be a guy. It gives him another trustworthy adult that he can bounce things off of," Patera said. "I think it's one of the best, if not the best, programs around here to help kids."

She noted that her son's mentor also has helped him with homework and encouraged him academically.

Now, it needs help.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington's board of directors put School Buddies, the school mentoring program, on hold for this school year, as members grappled with a shrinking budget caused by a drop in funding when two major grants ended.

As the organization was attempting to replace those grant dollars, the recession hit - further shrinking finances as corporate and individual donations dried up, with those coming from individuals dropping by 61 percent to $14,947 in 2012.

As a result of its financial straits, the board reduced staffing levels by about 37 percent to an average of 41/2 full-time employees for this year, and cut the budget from $425,000 last year to $333,000 this year.

Putting the school program on hold affected 115 kids in the Bellingham School District, which was the group served.

In total, the organization's financial struggles mean that just 97 children have been served in Whatcom and Skagit counties so far this year, down from 389 children in 2010 through both the school- and community-based mentoring programs.

Others remain on a waiting list.

Haggerty said it costs about $1,092 per year for each match, with plenty of staff time going into interviewing, background checks, training of Bigs, making a match and ongoing support.

"We match them with the right child. That can take time to find a good fit," she explained.

Big Brother Big Sisters helps children going through tough times by matching them with an adult mentor. About 81 percent of the kids it helps are in poverty and 78 percent are from single-parent homes.

Children mentored through the organization are 47 percent less likely to use drugs, and 86 percent of the kids said they learned to make better choices as adults thanks to the influence of their mentors.

Among the youths who have been helped is Jason Sestner, an 18-year-old Bellingham resident who received a mentor while in school and later through the organization's community-based program.

Sestner was in the program from seventh grade until his sophomore year. His childhood had been a rocky one, he said, and his mentor was a "positive" and "uplifting" force.

"Today, I'm a much more positive person. I have different outlooks on life," he said.

When he tells people how the organization has helped him, Sestner likes to say that "Bigs today are making little impacts that will make big impacts on their Little's future."


HOW TO HELP

Tax-deductible donations to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington can be made at its website at bbbs-nw.org.

Or call 360-671-6400, ext. 107.

The organization also puts on four big annual fundraisers.

Its next one is the Aug. 16 Golf Classic at Shuksan Golf Club. Go to the website and select "upcoming events" on the left to learn more and to register.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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