PORT TOWNSEND — More than 150 North Olympic Peninsula children will have to say goodbye next Friday to the adults who have mentored them, as the Seattle-based Big Brothers Big Sisters pulls the plug on the branch program unless last-minute funds come in.
The office on Sims Way in Port Townsend will close on Nov. 20 after nearly five years of operation.
Affected will be the 150 school-based partnerships in Jefferson County and the seven school-based pairings at Roosevelt and Dry Creek Elementary schools in Port Angeles.
Community-based pairings in Jefferson County will have limited funding.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a national organization that matches children, or “littles,” with adults, or “bigs,” to provide them with role models and positive influences that may be lacking in their family lives.
Port Townsend resident Mike Morrissey, 66, said the closure of the program will be a loss for the community.
He has been a Big for four years, first in Portland, now in Port Townsend. He has mentored three teen and preteen boys. His current match is 13-year-old Zac, a student at Blue Heron Middle School.
“So many kids get so much out of this –there’s nothing that can replace it,” he said. “Just the fact that there’s another adult who is interested in them gives them a better sense of themselves, a stronger ego.”
Leisl Slabaugh, branch manager for the office that serves Jefferson and Clallam counties, said the decision to close the branch was based on finances.
The branch had been operating at a deficit, and the parent organization decided it could no longer support it.
With an annual budget of $167,000, the local group’s contribution was never more than $50,000, and averaged $30,000 to $40,000, she said.
“We’re pretty certain we will be closing Big Brothers-Big Sisters, but if the community support comes forward, we will look at ways of keeping mentoring alive in the community,” Slabaugh added.
Many thousands needed
She noted that they would need $50,000 to $90,000 by next Friday to stay open, but acknowledged that was unlikely to happen.
She said the bulk of the budget, $112,000, went to salaries for the three paid staffers.
Their tasks included recruiting mentors and children, screening candidates, training them and matching adults with children.
“It’s not as simple as just putting people together,” she said. “Research shows that the more structured and professional a program is, the better the outcome.”
Some matches funded
Although the school-based programs will end, the regional office, Big Brothers-Big Sisters of Puget Sound will provide limited financing for the 50 community-based matches in Jefferson County, Slabaugh said.
School-based matches meet once a month at the students’ school, while community-based matches partake in activities outside of school.
The Port Angeles program just started this school year, taking over for a mentoring program run by the YMCA of Clallam County.
An Americorp volunteer, Samantha Garwood, was in the process of establishing more matches in Port Angeles when she got word that the program –and her job –would end.
She said there were seven matches active in Port Angeles and quite a few applications for both mentors and students at the two participating schools.
“The goal was to get established at those two schools before expanding,” she said.
According to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound Web site: “By matching children with adult mentors in one-to-one relationships, we transform the life of a child (a Little), transform the life of an adult (a Big) and together transform our schools, our neighborhoods and our communities for the better.”
The organization serves 2,600 children annually in King, Pierce, Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam counties.
Puget Sound region
It recently held an auction called “The Big Event” that raised $590,000 of a $600,000 goal “for kids in the Puget Sound region.”
Erin McCallum, board chairwoman of the Big Brothers-Big Sisters of Puget Sound said that organization is not running at a deficit, but declined to provide annual budget figures.
“We are operating in the black, but the situation is uncomfortable for the board of directors, so we had to make some cuts,” she said.
She said there have been $1 million in cuts this year, including programs, staff and not making matches.
“It was a very difficult decision,” she said. “We have chosen to suspend operations because our revenue for 2009 did not meet the budget projections.”
McCallum said the hope is that communities affected will be able to work with the organization to come up with funding.
“The long-term goal is for the community organizations to be self-sustaining,” she said.
Programs have also been curtailed in King and Pierce counties.
Bill James, chairman of the Jefferson Partnership Council, which oversees the Jefferson and Clallam program, said the local branch was not able to raise enough funds to be self-sustaining.
“We’ve been raising money and finding adult volunteers, but it just wasn’t sustainable at the level of community support,” he said. “I hate to leave the kids hanging.”
If the program had any chance to continue, “we have to become leaner and more aggressive in how we market ourselves to the community,” he said.
‘Bigs’ feel loss
For James it’s a personal loss, as he has been a “Big” for a year and a half.
“This program is a win-win situation for the kids and the Bigs,” he said.
The match between Morrissey and Zac is a community-based match, although Morrissey has had school-based matches.
When he and Zac meet up, their schedule is flexible.
“There’s always ice cream — it’s an important part of our relationship,” he said.
Last summer the pair sailed on the training sailing ship, the Adventuress, based in Port Townsend.
Zac enjoyed it so much that Morrissey was able to secure a scholarship for him to attend a five-day trip to the San Juans aboard the ship.
Morrissey said the impact on the community of the loss of the program is hard to judge, but it will have an impact on the “Littles.”
“These kids will have a little bit less in their lives,” he said. “It’s one more rejection for them.”
Slabaugh said the branch office is exploring other options to keep some form of mentoring alive in the communities.
“We would love for all of the relationships to continue,” she said.
________Features Editor Marcie Miller can be reached at 360-417-3550 or email@example.com