Big Brothers Big Sisters group closing over funding problem

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Connecticut, which serves more than 800 children and families in New London County, will close Nov. 1.

The United Way of Southeastern Connecticut decided this year to no longer fund the organization, to which it had given $114,215 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, because of concerns about financial management.

Charlie Ebbinghaus of Groton, who has volunteered for more than five years, said he was informed earlier this week that the nonprofit program, which partners adults with low-income or disadvantaged children ages 5 to 14, would close Nov. 1.

"I think it's a terrible loss," said Ebbinghaus, who was named state "Match of the Year" with his little "brother," John Sigler, earlier this year.

"I know the difference it had in my little brother's life and in my life as well," he said.

Virginia L. Mason, president and CEO of United Way, said it did not take lightly its decision to stop funding Big Brothers Big Sisters, which has served the region since 1965. She said for the past four years, United Way has been working with the organization after having "real concerns" over its financial management.

Mason said that United Way funding accounts for about 30 percent of Big Brothers Big Sisters' overall budget.

"All our concerns were articulated to the organization, both in writing and in person," Mason said. "We've not only met with the staff but with the board. We gave them every consideration. We have a responsibility to our donors. "

Big Brothers Big Sisters board President Kevin Ryan, who is also a state representative from Montville, said the board still needs to meet to make a final determination on what the organization's future will be. He said there is a possibility that it could merge some of the volunteers with another Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter in the state but conceded that the program matching adults with young children will end Nov. 1.

Ryan said losing funding from United Way played a role in ending the program and hampered the organization's efforts to replace its executive director, who retired. He said the organization was financially sound and that the only debt it had was a mortgage on the building it owns in Oakdale.

Dina Sears-Graves, vice president of community investment at United Way, said a financial review panel of volunteers with financial backgrounds reviewed Big Brothers Big Sisters audits and 990 IRS tax forms for several years. She said the review panel raised some concerns over the audits.

Sears-Graves said the nature of those concerns, which are not criminal, is confidential. Despite the concerns, Sears-Graves said United Way continued to monitor the organization and provided the agency with tools to improve financial management.

"It was agonizing for our volunteers ... to recommend not to fund them," said Sears-Graves.

Ryan said he was left "bewildered" when United Way told the organization it was ceasing funding, since he thought all concerns had been addressed. He also disputed that the organization was provided with assistance from United Way.

Keith Fontaine, United Way board chairman, said United Way at every turn pointed out what needed to be done to address the concerns about financial management and in a "rare decision" decided to no longer fund them.

He added that while losing United Way funding would be a hardship for any organization, it should not be the reason it closes.

According to Big Brothers Big Sisters' 990 tax form from 2012, the organization took in $329,600 in revenue but had $348,884 in expenses.

Deanna Sauceda, director of media relations and community engagement for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, said the national organization recently became aware that the southeastern Connecticut branch was closing.

"It is unfortunate the agency will be closing," Sauceda said in a statement. "Each of approximately 340 Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies across the country operate independently and depend largely on their own fundraising."

Ebbinghaus said he has received permission from Sigler's mother to continue their relationship once the program officially closes.

Ebbinghaus first met Sigler more than seven years ago when he volunteered in a mentoring program in the Groton public schools system and became his Big Brother when Sigler entered middle school.

The pair see each other weekly and sometimes go on outings such as hikes, the movies or the library. They also work with elementary students at Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School in Groton.

"It's been a great experience for the both of us," Ebbinghaus said. "It's unfortunate that kids who need the mentoring or companionship are going to miss out on that now that the agency is shutting down."

i.larraneta@theday.com

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