R.I. mentoring agency to fill new void in region

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State will provide support to the 50 children and their mentors who will be affected by the closing of the local chapter at the end of the month.

Deborah Saunders, executive director of the Cranston, R.I.-based agency, said she learned about two weeks ago that the southeastern Connecticut chapter was closing because of a lack of funding. She said she immediately contacted the national organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and offered her organization's services. That offer was accepted late last week.

"In Rhode Island, the mission is so important to us," Saunders said. "It's about the kids, not about how much money you raise. Our board felt from a moral and ethical perspective that, if we had the resources, we couldn't let the kids just hang out there."

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State offers mentoring programs to more than 500 children throughout Rhode Island and neighboring Massachusetts. In 2011, it reported revenue of $892,887 and expenses of $792,542. The agency was honored in 2012 with a "Gold Standard Award," identifying it as one of the top agencies in the nation, and the Providence Business News "Non Profit of the Year Award," also in 2012.

Beginning Nov. 1, the Rhode Island chapter will reassess and re-evaluate the Connecticut child-mentor pairs before re-enrolling them in their program. Saunders said a conference call is scheduled for today with her staff and Kevin Ryan, board president of the southeastern Connecticut chapter, and its program manager to discuss that process.

After serving the community for nearly 50 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Connecticut will close after losing almost half of its funding.

Ryan said he couldn't comment because the board still has to talk about the arrangement.

"We are hopeful that on some level, the program will continue to exist in southeastern Connecticut," Ryan said.

Because of concerns about financial management, United Way of Southeastern Connecticut decided this year to stop funding the organization, to which it had given $114,215 during the fiscal year that ended June 30. United Way provided about 30 percent of the local Big Brothers Big Sisters budget. Earlier this year, the local chapter also lost about a $60,000 federal grant from the Tribal Youth National Mentoring Program.

According to southeastern Connecticut chapter's 2012 990 tax form, the organization took in $329,600 in revenue but had $348,884 in expenses. On the 2011 form, it reported $368,077 in revenue and $396,658 in expenses.

Saunders said her organization also would look into the possibility of expanding its programs into southeastern Connecticut and would expect a decision on that in the coming months. The national organization ultimately would have to approve any expansion.

"We have to look at what resources are available and, more importantly, if there is a need and community support," she said.

Saunders said her organization has a long history of partnering with the southeastern Connecticut chapter through its donation collection activities, which, she said, will continue to operate in the region.

Since 1998, both organizations have collected used clothing and household items for resale at Savers thrift stores throughout Rhode Island, with the proceeds benefitting the separate mentoring programs.

Saunders said there are donation bins throughout the region and people can continue to schedule free home pick-up of their used items. She said part of the expansion would be to identify a permanent physical donation site in the region. Home pick-up can be scheduled by calling (877) 725-6843.

She said the donation business grosses about $2 million annually and creates a sustained source of revenue for its mentoring programs.

"We do apply for grant money, but we do not rely on (grants)," Saunders said. "What we are seeing is that money from those sources is dwindling."

According to the national organization, each of the approximately 340 Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies across the country operate independently and depend largely on their own fundraising. It estimates that it costs $1,200 to $1,500 a year per child in the mentoring program.

Big Brothers Big Sisters' local agencies use these funds to pair volunteer mentors in one-to-one, long-term mentoring matches. Beyond making the matches, the national organization said funds pay for professional staff to provide support to the volunteers, children and families throughout the course of the match. The money is also used to track the children in school and monitor their socio-emotional health.

i.larraneta@theday.com

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