Budget woes force Raleigh YWCA's closure

Staff is laid off and programs abruptly end

mquillin@newsobserver.com, ajames@newsobserver.comMarch 1, 2012 

  • In its early years, the Young Women's Christian Association in Raleigh was limited to white women, who starting in the 1920s met in a building on Salisbury Street. In 1944, a group of black women formed the Sojourner Truth Branch on East Hargett Street, and the two branches cooperated, sometimes behind closed doors when meetings between blacks and whites were rare. In the early 1950s, the YWCA accepted black women as full-fledged members and integrated its two facilities.

    The YWCA moved from Salisbury Street to Oberlin Road, where its building had an indoor pool, fitness facilities and guest rooms. The East Hargett Street branch moved into a new building in 1969.

    With its membership in decline and competition for swimming and fitness facilities growing, the YWCA sold its Oberlin Road building for $3.8 million in 2007 and consolidated its operations on East Hargett Street. YWCA leaders said the building's sale would allow the organization to expand its programs, including after-school and summer camps for children, cancer and heart disease screening and treatment programs and study circles about racism.

Editor's note: A story on Thursday's front page incorrectly described the decrease in funding in recent years from the United Way to the YWCA of the Greater Triangle. YWCA Executive Director Folami Bandele said that United Way support of her agency had dropped from $305,137 in 2008 to $200,351 in the current budget year. That is a 34 percent reduction.

RALEIGH -- The YWCA of the Greater Triangle ceased operations Wednesday in the face of mounting financial problems, an abrupt end to a social services organization that has been working on behalf of women in the Raleigh area for 110 years.

The move put all of the YWCA's employees out of work and leaves in a lurch the parents of about 50 elementary school-aged children who relied on the Y's after-school care, as well as about 60 older adults whose main meal of the day came from a Meals on Wheels program based at the East Hargett Street facility.

In all, the YWCA served about 12,000 people throughout the Triangle in its mission to "eliminate racism and empower women." Much of the work the YWCA did was designed to help financially strapped single mothers.

The YWCA was supported by grants from corporations, foundations and governments and got money from the United Way. Except for its below-market rates for after-school care, it didn't charge for services.

The nonprofit has struggled financially in recent years: In 2007, the YWCA sold its underused fitness center on Oberlin Road for $3.8 million and said it would use the proceeds to focus more on community aid and development for women and families.

The most current Internal Revenue Service documents indicate that the YWCA's assets dropped from $3.6 million in July 2007 to $2.2 million in June 2010, and that it ran deficits of nearly $400,000 in fiscal 2008 and $844,000 in fiscal 2009.

Maria Spaulding, president of the YWCA board of directors, said the board realized in October that the agency was in dire shape, primarily because it was not receiving enough grants to support its programs. It laid off six people and cut expenses then, she said, made more cuts in December and let go nine more people in mid-February.

Late Tuesday, the board called a special meeting and decided to shut down completely, putting out of work the remaining staff of 14, including executive director Folami Bandele.

After-school, health care

Spaulding, an assistant secretary at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and a supporter of the YWCA's work, said it was heartbreaking to shut it down.

The Young Women's Christian Association has been a pioneer in race relations, labor union representation and the rights of women and minorities since it was started in New York in 1858. Locally, it traces its roots to 1901, when a chapter grew out of Sunday evening prayer meetings and the missionary society at Meredith College, according to the school's history.

Employees learned of the decision to shut down Tuesday night when Bandele reached them by conference call.

"Believe me when I say this, because of the impact on the people that we served and on our dedicated employees: The board would not have done this just to be doing something," Spaulding said.

"There is something we've got to learn from this in terms of sustainability."

Employees at the facility on Wednesday were frustrated and sad. It should have been pay day, and not only would they not be paid, but the clients who trusted them would no longer get services.

"The heartbreaking part is telling the moms we can't support them anymore. We're abandoning them," said Katie Lowek, a parent education counselor in the YWCA's Teen Parent Connection program, which served girls and young women aged 12 to 19.

The program was only three years old, but Lowek said it had made a difference in the lives of girls who are pregnant or have given birth and may have nowhere else to turn. It was launched with a one-time grant that ran out in December, and the YWCA wasn't able to find a sponsor to take it over.

Lowek and another counselor, Ashley Hicks, visited clients in their homes, held workshops, taught them parenting skills and about reproductive health and helped them plan their futures, such as getting them to go back to school.

"There's nothing else like this," in the area, Lowek said.

The YWCA also had programs that worked at increasing birth weights and reducing infant mortality rates among African-American babies and helped provide infant supplies for new mothers.

Until mid-February, Lorraine Kimble ran a program that helped uninsured women over age 40 get clinical breast exams and screening mammograms. Every year, she said, "We save the life of at least one or two women," by finding breast cancer that likely would go undetected otherwise.

That program was supported by Rex Hospital, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Pretty in Pink, Avon and others, Kimble said. But in recent months, she said, she had begun to wonder if all the money given by supporters was going to the program or being used for other purposes.

"It just didn't add up," she said.

Bandele, who joined the agency in 2005 and took over as director in 2008, said she had seen no irregularities and had heard no complaints from the staff.

"I can say I am not aware of any misuse of grant funds," she said. "We have files of records and documentation on all of the women we serve in that program."

Down economy cuts funding

Bandele said the YWCA's annual budget had been running between $1.8 million and $2 million per year for the past several years, but that funding for the current fiscal year had dropped to about $1.2 million. She said that the YWCA got about 30 percent of its funding from the United Way, and that had been cut by more than 30 percent since 2008.

United Way senior vice president Angie Welsh said that her agency had cut its support for all Wake County programs this year by the same amount, a little more than 9 percent.

Last budget year, she said, the United Way gave the YWCA $221,600 to support three programs: one that teaches women job and financial skills, the breast cancer-detection program and the children's after-school care.

This year, she said, it gave the YWCA $200,351, a difference of $21,249.

"We know the drop in United Way funding has been a blow to them," Welsh said, but in the current economy, United Way's contributions have fallen off.

By May, the YWCA would have submitted new financial statements, including its tax documents for 2010, for the United Way to inspect. With the closing, Welsh said she didn't know if her agency would ever get those.

Bandele said the YWCA is in debt, but she said she was not free to discuss the amount or whether the agency would try to meet its payroll. She and Spaulding said the board will now have to decide whether to try to resurrect the YWCA or sell its assets, including the East Hargett Street building and 1.8 acres, valued at just over $1 million.

Spaulding said the survival of the YWCA would depend in part on whether the community decides it wants to support the work the agency does.

"We don't know," she said. "We just don't know."

In the meantime, Bandele and office staff - none of whom were being paid - were trying to help surprised parents find affordable after-school care for their children, possibly at local churches, and hoped that someone would also take over the Meals on Wheels program.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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