Wednesday, March 26th, 2014...2:10 pm
Big Brothers Big Sisters getting back in stride
When Alan Stein walked into the offices of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass two-and-a-half years ago, the non-profit’s few remaining employees were preparing to pack their personal items and leave.
“Mike Scanlon called me and said I need your help,” Stein recalled. “Big Brothers and Big Sisters is in big trouble.”
Stein, president and CEO of SteinGroup, and Scanlon, Thomas & King CEO, were both significant donors to the organizations and both were former board members. Neither wanted the mentoring program to disappear.
“What I was seeing was the door closing and the employees getting laid off because there was no money,” Scanlon said. “A couple of things needed to happen really fast.”
First, there was no money. Bendrea Wilson, a former office manager, had issued 142 fraudulent checks amounting to more than $430,000 between 2008 and 2009 before Central Bank noticed suspicious activity. The amount embezzled represented about a third of the organization’s annual budget at that time.
Wilson and five others were charged. Wilson is serving four years in prison.
On top of that, the economy tanked, which forced previous donors to cling to their shrinking budgets or dole out much smaller amounts to charity. Some donors just weren’t sure Big Brothers and Big Sisters could correctly manage money it received.
“That embezzlement was not carelessness or the board members being asleep,” Scanlon said. “We were getting financial documents that were not true.”
And then United Way of the Bluegrass cut its BBBS annual funding of $200,000.
Into that perfect storm rushed Scanlon and Stein, willingly.
With the approval of the remaining board members, the two men gave the organization $20,000 every couple of weeks to keep the doors open, Stein said.
Scanlon said he operated behind the scenes while Stein became the face of the organization. Stein said he made about 50 speeches in 30 days and raised $250,000.
“We were able to get back on our feet,” Stein said. “We constituted the board with young committed people, and hired Eric Ward as president and CEO, who re-energized us. We were back in business.”
BBBS has been in operation for nearly 60 years, providing adult mentors for boys and girls who are considered at risk. Its headquarters are in Lexington, but it serves young people in 14 counties.
And it is a United Way agency again. Still fundraising was difficult.
“To raise cash, we needed some credibility,” Scanlon said.
Even though the theft was discovered in 2009, prosecution was slow, he said. The authorities were trying to catch more fish. “We had to restore confidence in raising money without impairing the prosecution,” he said.
They hired a new accounting firm and certified public account, and had board members trained through the Nonprofit Leadership Initiative at the University of Kentucky.
There were also pay cuts and benefits changes, Scanlon said.
When Ward was hired as commissioner of the Mid-South Conference last year, Ralph Coldiron was hired as president and CEO. Coldiron is a longtime civic activist in Lexington.
“We are leaner and meaner, but we are still serving the same number of children,” Coldiron said. “We’ve got so many safeguards now. No one can open bank statements but me.”
Two people have to approve bill payments and payroll, he said, and there are double and triple checks at every level.
The need for adult mentors still exists, he said, but before matches can be made, there are several tests and checks both the adult and child must go through.
And that costs money, he said.
Independent background checks cost $200 each and there are four of those administered. There are also checks on the child, and psychological checks for both child and adult. And there is a case management study conducted to ensure the match will be successful.
“I’d be surprised if someone is doing more than we do,” said Natalie Thompson, program director. “Because of the safeguards we have in place, there is a lot that goes into making a match and to supporting these matches. We are working with much less resources, people included.
“It is tough not to be able to serve every kid that is out there. But we have to be able to do what we do and do it well and not be spread thin.”
About 81 percent of the children they serve come from single families, or are wards of the court or are living with grandparents, Coldiron said. Those who are mentored, however, are more competent in their school work and get along better with their parents. “Of the kids that are mentored, 46 percent are less likely to use drugs; 27 percent are less likely to use alcohol; and, if matched, 52 percent are less likely to skip school,” he said.
In the first part of 2012, after Scanlon and Stein helped bail out the organization, Thompson said, only six matches were made. By the second half of that year, 80 matches were set up. In 2013, the number of matches continued to grow with 156 new matches.
“With a committed board and a staff that refuses to allow this program to fail. Our goals this year are to serve even more children,” Thompson said. There are 200 kids on a waiting list for a mentor.
But to start the process for those matches, the organization needs money.
That gives us the opportunity to be heroes like Scanlon and Stein.
Every year, BBBS hosts a series of fundraisers called Bowl for Kids’ Sake, from which $250,000 can be collected.
Coldiron said the fundraiser is critical.
Each team consists of five people who pledge or raise $100 each. There are 10 bowling dates for locations throughout Central Kentucky. BBBS is trying to recruit 500 teams for a total of $250,000. The organization is about 140 teams short. The fundraiser brings in about 40 percent of the total operational budget.
Coldiron said some of the mentored participants have formed teams. He welcomes everyone.
“We got bamboozled, lied to and misled,” Scanlon said. But since then, “we have been very good stewards of not only (people’s) children but also their money, too.
“These kids matter too much.”
“These kids are vulnerable to falling through the cracks, and that is a terrible thing in and of itself,” he said. “But as a business person, it is one less kid we have to worry abut being incarcerated, going to mediation or drug rehabilitation. One less kid that will cost the taxpayer.”
How to help
Bowl for Kids’ Sake
In Fayette County, the last dates to bowl are April 26 and 27. Call (859) 231-8181 for more information and a schedule of dates, or register at www.bbbs-bluegrass.org.