News Report, Kia Croom
Last month, under increasing financial strain, the non-profit Opportunity West closed its doors. Housed in the Nevin Community Center, located in Richmond’s Iron Triangle, the closure left staff and clients struggling to cope with the loss of services many say are needed now more than ever.
With the economy continuing to sputter, it’s a trend being mirrored nationwide.
Patricia McDonald is a case manager with the center, which offered learning and developmental opportunities to at-risk youth and their families before shutting its doors in April. She said she learned of the closing just four weeks prior, and despite not knowing when or if she would receive her final paycheck, she voluntarily continued to come to work to support her clients.
“People ask why do I keep coming to work — it’s my clients.” she said. “They still need services and who is gonna help them? I am still working from my desk,” she said. “I have all of my clients’ files, because they [the clients] keep coming.”
According to a study put out last year by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, demand for the kind of services provided at Opp West have spiked nationwide since the onset of the recession in 2008. That and a drying up of funds have led to a severe crunch, with 87 percent of the 2000 nonprofits surveyed reporting their operations have been impacted.
Opportunity West serviced residents mostly from the city’s Iron Triangle neighborhood, which has long struggled with high rates of poverty and crime. Yet despite whispers of the agency’s closing, it was business as usual at the center even into its final days of operation.
From a short distance, McDonald and co-worker Sally Villaseck, who coordinated the center’s Families in Transition program, observed clients utilizing the community resource room. One woman perused job postings, her three-month old son fast asleep in his stroller. Another man approached to let Villaseck know he would be leaving for the day.
Neither knew of the pending closure.
“That is one of my regular clients. Every day he looks for me to tell me his progress. I don’t know how he is going to take it when I tell him we are closing,” she said.
Villaseck had been with Opportunity West for 7 years. She says she was devastated to learn of the closing, especially after having been such an integral part of the opening at its current location.
“I actually helped clean the building before we moved here,” she recalled. “I did whatever I needed to do, scrubbed floors, mopped, swept even before all of the power in the building was on, I was there working”
Through her work helping homeless children enroll in local schools, Villaseck gained the love and respect of youth in the city’s West County community. She says her cellular phone became a lifeline to the many young people who called her when in distress.
“When they call me, I stop what I am doing and go to them to help them. Sometimes they need clothes, transportation and even food.” There have even been times, she adds, when she’s been at home with family and a kid calls saying they need clothes. “I have gone to my son’s closet and taken clothes to give to kids in need. These kids rely on me.”
Opportunity West moved to the Nevin Center in 2005, after years of maintaining separate offices around the city. Former Executive Director Cheryl Maier acquired space within the Nevin Center to consolidate the programs and establish a site central to its target population –residents of the Iron Triangle, where unemployment hovers around 20 percent and where crime rates consistently outpace the national average.
During this time, the center — which is owned by the City of Richmond — was unoccupied due to budget constraints. Maier, with support from public and private sector leaders, successfully negotiated Opp West’s occupancy of the site.
“We became a resource center for people in that neighborhood. Poor people could come there and get services. We had an open door, if you came there and needed some services we would make the connection, because too many people have too much difficulty navigating the system,” she said.
According to Maier, Opportunity West’s target population was the most vulnerable and disenfranchised of the community. Her staff, on numerous occasions extended themselves both professionally and personally to meet the needs of the clients. In the end, the agency extended its financial resources as far as it could in its service of clients.
“We ran out of gas. We were too small to maintain the scale of services needed to support the community,” Maier explained.
Others cite allegations of financial mismanagement, which they say led to its closing. “There were discrepancies with payroll taxes, employees and an outright mismanagement of funds,” one source said.
Regardless of the cause, Opp West’s closing was a surprise to many of the agency’s collaborative partners.
For Richard Boyle, with the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO), it was both sudden and unexpected.
“There were definitely whispers in the rumor mill of the financial troubles, but no indication that they were going to close,” Boyle said.
In closing, Opportunity West transferred two of its staple programs to two local organizations: the Families in Transition Program (FIT), which supports homeless school age children, is now operated by the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP); the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL), meanwhile, is now operated by Youth Enrichment Strategies.
Still, with the lingering uncertainty surrounding the non-profit sector, it remains a question as to how long these agencies will be able to fund the programs.
For Maier, the recession gave the answer. “We ran out of money to keep the infrastructure going and the board saw that we didn’t have funding anymore from key contributors… The way I see it, our season had passed.”
Sadly, the needs of the community have not.