State budget cuts could force Big Brothers Big Sisters, a one-on-one mentoring program that’s been in Helena for 50 years, to close for good.
President Colleen Brady said she’s still hopeful fundraising efforts can preserve some programming, but said countless other nonprofits are facing similar cuts and asking the community to rally around them. Brady said it's realistic that the community won't be able to keep up with all of the needed donations.
Big Brothers Big Sisters, a national nonprofit with local chapters all over the country, provides several programs, but is most well known for matching a child, called a “little,” with an adult, or “big,” for 8 to 10 hours a month of one-on-one mentoring. Once a case manager matches a pair, the big and little participate in activities of common interest, like hiking or seeing a movie. Brady said the program leads to academic success, builds self esteem and prevents introduction to the criminal justice system, and prevents suicide and abuse of drugs and alcohol. Big Brothers Big Sisters also has a school program where high school students mentor younger students, and a program where adults spend one hour a week mentoring students during lunch.
Brady said some of those services have already been reduced, and she expects further reductions if the program doesn’t meet major fundraising goals in coming months. Brady said Big Brothers Big Sisters lost $43,000 in funding in January. The federal funding is provided through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and administered by the state health department. Brady said the state health department redirected the money when it developed a new strategic plan. Because Big Brothers Big Sisters anticipated the reduction, it immediately intensified fundraising efforts to cope. Brady said the organization did a good job until it lost an additional $58,000 through budget cuts made by the Montana Legislature.
During the regular session when legislators were faced with a tight budget year, the organization lost $45,000 it usually receives from the Montana Board of Crime Control for keeping juveniles out of the justice system. After state revenues came in lower than projected and Montana had a historically expensive wildfire season, legislators came back to Helena for a special session in November to address a $227 million shortfall. As part of the solution, Big Brothers Big Sisters lost another $13,000 from the general fund.
Now the organization is trying to maintain services after losing about 25 percent of its budget.
Brady said Big Brothers Big Sisters is a direct service program, meaning most of its expenses are in personnel. Most of its employees are case managers, who are required by the national organization to have a degree and are more expensive to employ. Case managers oversee all of the matches, including an extensive application process, background checks and interviews, a process that takes six weeks to complete. Each case manager is responsible for 70 to 75 cases, although Brady said 60 is an ideal caseload. Brady has already had to eliminate 2.5 case managers.
“If we don’t have case managers, we don’t have matches. So we had to start eliminating programs,” she said. “The first thing we did was eliminate the high school peer-to-peer program.”
Because case managers have monthly check-ins, existing matches go away when a case manager is laid off. The high school program supported 40 matches.
“The child, the parent, the big are all interviewed every month independent of each other, documented word for word and inputted into our database system, because our No. 1 concern is the safety of these children,” she said.
While there’s usually a shortage of adult volunteers, the organization typically has a wait list of children. Now the cuts forced Big Brothers Big Sisters to stop accepting children to the wait list.
“That’s what happened to us. Now we’re just trying to make up that difference and having that shortfall is just killing us,” Brady said.
Brady decided against adding additional fundraising events and instead is focusing on the Bowl for Kids' Sake event on Jan. 26-28 at Sleeping Giant Lanes, because people who don’t have a lot to give have an opportunity to get involved through pledges. Big Brothers Big Sisters also started crowdfunding through its Facebook page with a goal of raising $50,000 by February.
“If we don’t do that then we’ll have to go and eliminate more programs and there’s not a whole lot left to eliminate,” she said.
To register a team for Bowl for Kids' Sake, or to make a donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters, visit www.bbbs-helena.org or call 442-7479.