Area teen centers feel funding pinch

Editor’s note: Nonprofits and other organizations that depend heavily on income from U.S. government sources have to look for other funding or rein in their services. This is the second in a series looking at how locals are reacting to moves to cut spending on the federal government level.
ADDISON COUNTY –– Isaiah Goff nodded as Jenn Cunningham described the importance of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.
“It’s the stability, the kids go to school, come here and then they go home,” she said. “It’s nice to have good role models and structure. That’s definitely what I used it for in high school, it was just a safe place.”
Cunningham, 19, started attending the club as an eighth-grader. Now enrolled at Community College of Vermont, she still drops by to hang out and lend a hand.
Goff, 15, explained that the club provides a positive environment for local kids who need guidance.
“It helps keep some kids on track,” he said. “They can come here and be in a nice climate and have bigger kids influencing them well.”
Three local teen centers –– the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, Middlebury’s Addison Central Teens (ACT) and The Bristol Hub –– are each affected to different degrees by cuts in federal funding for nonprofits. All three face various challenges when forming their budgets.
The Vergennes club serves youth and teens in the towns surrounding the Little City and is a branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Mike Reiderer, the executive director, explained that it provides a fun and safe hangout.
“That’s the core of everything we do, that kids come here and have fun after school, in the summer,” he said.
The club also runs various educational and leadership programs, and does a significant amount of community service.
“We want to give them the life skills, the leadership development and the character-building experiences that are going to help them throughout their lives,” Reiderer said.
The club serves about 600 kids a year, 300 members and 300 through community outreach. The club has an annual budget of $225,000 to $300,000.
Grants are the club’s principal funding source, especially from the national organization.
“Our biggest granters would be Boys and Girls Clubs of America, United Way of Addison County and fairly consistently over the last several years we’ve gotten grants from the state Department of Health,” Reiderer said.
The Boys and Girls Clubs of America receives funding from the federal government, which is given to local clubs.
“That funding has to be approved by Congress every year, the Department of Justice has to put it into their budget, the Boys and Girls Club has to distribute it, and we have to apply and do well with our applications,” Reiderer said. “We’ve been very fortunate, over the last five or six years it’s made up anywhere from a little under 30 percent to as much as 50 percent of our annual budget.”
After the recession hit in 2008 the national organization was removed from the federal government budget, alarming local clubs. But club made up the difference with money from the federal economic stimulus package, Reiderer said.
The less stable funding source for the Vergennes club is foundation grants.
“Foundation funding has become more difficult,” Reiderer said. “As the economy has struggled, foundations seem to be making smaller grants and have more demand placed on them. They’re all so competitive now, there’s so many people out there looking for funding and only so much to go around.”
The combination of fickle federal and foundation funding has led to the club spending more conservatively. An expiring grant forced it to reduce staff. Two out of four full-time positions were cut, but 10 hours was added to a part-time position, leading to a net cut of a 1.75 full-time positions. The club now has two full-time positions and four part-time. There has been no decrease in programming or services.
Despite such uncertainty, Reiderer remains confident in the club’s ability to provide a fun space for teens to grow and learn.
“Kids will come in here, they might be shy or might be new to the area and not have a lot of friends here, and over the course of a few months at the club they’ve started making some friends, they’ve built their self-confidence and they’re able to go back and use that in other areas,” he said. “When we can connect that back to how we knew them when they first came through the door, it feels really good to know that we’ve made enough of a difference in their lives, that they’re able to turn around, engage other people, bring that feeling outside of the club and spread it to other people as well.”
ACT provides a similar safe experience for youngsters in the seven towns that make up the Addison Central Supervisory Union school district, with drop-in hours and programs. Teens can play ping pong or Foosball, use the center’s computers, listen to music and hang out with friends.
“It’s a spot where you can go and be yourself and explore whatever you want to,” said board treasurer Rik Poduschnik. “It’s better for kids to come here and have a safe environment.”
An average of 24 young people come in daily during the school year and 200 come in annually.
ACT is in the basement of the Middlebury municipal building at 94 Main St. A large portion of the organization’s funding comes from Middlebury and the other six ACSU towns, explained Co-director Colby Benjamin.
“(Middlebury’s contribution) makes up almost 50 percent of our budget,” he said.
The rest of ACT’s funding comes from donations, fundraisers and grants from organizations like United Way and Vermont Children’s Trust Fund.
Receiving grants has become difficult due to federal cuts.
“There’s not a single federal funding source for us that is straight from the federal government,” said Poduschnik. “At the same time, the applications for state grants have spiked and the federal government has cut back. Instead of just a few organizations going for state or local funding, everybody’s going for state and local funding. While it’s not a direct impact that the federal government has cut spending and funding, you have the indirect effect of a much smaller pool. The success rate of applications for grants is much, much lower than they used to be.”
Two years ago ACT suffered a scare when its funding dropped from $100,000 to $70,000 due to expiring grants. With a small budget any decrease is significant.
While ACT made up that drop with private donations, the organization’s sustainability concerns Poduschnik. Losing grants has made it impossible to raise the pay of the co-directors, Benjamin and Jutta Miska.
“We haven’t been able to raise salaries for three years,” said Poduschnik. “We’re operating at such low salary levels compared to other organizations. Is it really sustainable for the staff to operate on such a low salary?”
Despite the frustration of being unable to expand, Poduschnik remains positive about the work put into ACT.
“It sounds like it’s just all gloom and doom, but we certainly don’t want to forget the tremendous work of Colby and Jutta that they’re doing every day,” he said.
Benjamin added that as long as they are helping kids and creating a fun, safe space, they are doing well.
“I asked a few kids why they come here and what the teen center means to them, and it was amazing what they said,” he said. “‘I feel safe,’ ‘I’m not bullied,’ ‘I’m not harassed.’ They realize what this place is offering them.”
The Hub is also a drop-in center with after-school and summer hours.
Teens can use the skate park, work in the garden, play games and instruments and hang out with friends.
“Our goal is to make a place that the kids really consider their own, a non-institutional joint that they really have their identity expressed in,” said Director Jim Lockridge.
Around 400 to 500 kids come each year, with anywhere from 12 to 50 coming in daily. The center’s yearly budget is about $100,000, with approximately $70,000 of that coming from the town of Bristol.
The Hub receives its operational funding from the town and looks to other sources for programming and activities.
“Our primary source that basically lets us open the door with minimal staff is … the taxpayers of Bristol, who have consistently supported this service,” said Lockridge. “We step into management of the facility at that level, but because the staff is as invested as they are with the idea of serving the kids and creating such a positive environment, we go above and beyond what’s demanded of us to find resources to make it bigger and better.”
The Hub uses various local and state organizations for outside funding sources.
“When we’re looking beyond the town for support our most consistent supporters have been the United Way of Addison County, the Children’s Trust Fund of Vermont, the Vermont Community Foundation, Vermont Coalition of Teen Centers, community groups like Bristol Friends of the Arts and local philanthropists,” said Lockridge. “We’ve sought support for special projects or participated in state programs that bring funding with them.”
The Hub has been fairly stable financially, largely due to Bristol covering operating costs. The organization does not rely on solely federal funding, which also contributes to stability.
“We’ve got this operational nut covered by the citizens of Bristol and when we strive to create a better teen center for youth of the five towns around us we go out and find resources,” said Lockridge. “We know when we ask for those resources our applications might be declined and they might be supported. We’re such optimists about it that we create what we can with what we have.”
While not counting on federal money, the Hub does get minimal federal funding, which is directed through the Vermont Coalition of Teen Centers. With operational funds covered, any funding the organization secures beyond that is considered extra. Lockridge explained that they do not expect this funding, but are happy to receive it because it allows The Hub to expand its services. The staff is planning on buying a used drum set, setting up a female-oriented space, expanding the garden, replacing the mural on the large quarter pipe skateboard ramp and adding more field trips.
“The other funding would be for us to do what we do better,” he said. “We want to have more hours and be available and open for more kids and have more community programs. We want to do more fun stuff and have more materials, supplies and food.”
Lockridge said he has kept requests for town funds relatively stable in recent years by not relying heavily on federal and foundation funding.
“We have purposefully sought level funding for this program for the last three or four years,” he said. “The last three years that we’ve been making the budget, we have kept it level-funded and we have done what’s necessary to make up whatever distance there might have been. We make a well-executed effort to be thrifty and efficient and smart with taxpayer monies.”
The Hub’s staff is happy to have budget security especially in their operational costs, because it allows them to expand the center to better serve teens.
“We have an opportunity that probably not every organization has to be entrepreneurial and to explore resources from very different directions,” said Lockridge.
That’s important, said Lockridge, because The Hub provides vital services to teens.
“Giving kids a place where they get to come be themselves, explore their interests, be safe, and have an adult presence that absolutely cares and wants them to learn how to make good choices for themselves, learn essential skills like responsibility, pick up tips on being good people in the world, The Hub is good for all that.”

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