After 37 years of matching kids with adult mentors, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington will close at the end of September because it couldn't find a consistent funding source.
The nonprofit, which helped children in Whatcom and Skagit counties, had been struggling financially because of an ailing economy and a drop in funding when two major grants ended.
Recent efforts to appeal to the community during fundraising campaigns, aggressively apply for grants, and merge with another local nonprofit to share costs weren't enough, officials said.
The chapter also couldn't afford to pay the added cost of a revised database for donors and matches that the national organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, was rolling out next spring.
So the board of directors decided to close. Six employees will lose their jobs.
"It was a difficult decision for the board to make. It was a long time in coming, and it was not one they took lightly," said Colleen Haggerty, executive director.
"We were looking at merging, but when the board was really able to take a hard look at the financials, they realized it didn't make sense to go through all the effort of a merger when they could see the financial forecast," she added. "It didn't look sustainable."
Those who have been helped by the program and those who served as mentors - called Bigs - were saddened by the news.
"It's a shame," said Sam Harvey, who served as a mentor in Bellingham for two years to kids whose parents were incarcerated. "It's an indispensable program. It's offering a very valuable resource to the community. It's hard to watch that program go."
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, according to the organization.
Since 1976, it has matched about 6,000 children - called Littles - in Whatcom and Skagit counties with a mentor, either through school- or community-based programs.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington officials said they have struggled to find a consistent and reliable funding stream since closing their money-losing bingo hall in Bellingham in May 2002.
(That was a change from the early 1990s when bingo revenue was in excess of $500,000 and made up 95 percent of the nonprofit agency's budget.)
As the organization was attempting to replace the lost 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.
Last school year, its board of directors put School Buddies, the school mentoring program, on hold because of a shrinking budget.
As a result of its financial straits, the board reduced staffing levels by about 37 percent and cut the budget from $425,000 last year to $333,000.
Putting the school program on hold affected 115 kids in the Bellingham School District, which was the group served.
In 2010, the nonprofit served 389 children through both the school- and community-based mentoring programs.
Because of the organization's financial struggles, the number served had dropped to 105 children, as of September, in Whatcom and Skagit counties.
Haggerty said the matches have been notified of the pending closure.
At least 90 percent will continue seeing each other, she said, "which tells us we made really great matches."
"That's very comforting to us. The truly sad part is all those children who didn't get that Big," she said.
Among the children who have been helped is Kate Patera's 12-year-old son. The Bellingham resident and single mother turned to the organization because she felt her son needed male mentoring.
Her son's relationship with his mentor "is huge in his life," she said, adding that their mentoring relationship will continue after Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington closes.
"His Big helps him deal with solving social problems and school problems," Patera said.
"It would be such a vacuum in my child's life," if his Big wasn't there, she said. "One relationship with one person can make such a difference for a kid."
Read more about the decision on the agency's Facebook page.
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.