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Sunday, 15 September 2013 22:00

New Way Forward: Kalamazoo nonprofit weighs future after major funding pulled

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The Douglass Community Association scrambled to raise more than $101,000 after the local United Way chapter pulled its funding from the group. While backers acknowledge the group had some issues with mismanagement in the past, they contend it has restructured and is on the right track. The Douglass Community Association scrambled to raise more than $101,000 after the local United Way chapter pulled its funding from the group. While backers acknowledge the group had some issues with mismanagement in the past, they contend it has restructured and is on the right track. COURTESY PHOTO

KALAMAZOO — June Cotton’s earliest memories of the Douglass Community Association include dances and numerous visits to a soda fountain there.

She said she didn’t want the closure of the 94-year-old organization to be her last memory of the community gathering place.

During a press conference in early September at the organization commonly called “the Douglass,” Cotton was among the more than 50 community leaders and residents who gathered to celebrate the completion of a 30-day fundraising campaign that netted $101,469.38 in cash and an additional $89,000 in in-kind contributions. The donations of cash, goods and services will enable the organization to continue operating for another three and a half months.

Community residents, pastors and city leaders organized the “Saving a Legacy” fundraising campaign days after officials with the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region announced on July 24 that they would discontinue providing $264,780 in funding to the Douglass. At the time, Mike Larson, president and CEO of the local United Way, said that “the situation has reached a point at which United Way believes that it cannot, in good conscience and good stewardship, continue to provide funding to the Douglass Community Association.”

Cotton, who was once co-chair of the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP’s Labor and Industry Committee, said she couldn’t understand the United Way’s decision to stop funding an organization that serves a crucial role in the lives of so many residents of the city’s Northside neighborhood, including her own family.

After moving from Bloomingdale to Kalamazoo at age 14 to take a job with a telephone company, she said she found a new social network through the Douglass.

“I came to Kalamazoo from the country,” Cotton said. “I was the new kid in town and the Douglass Community Association was the only place at that time where young kids from the whole city could get together. That was the beginning of my social life and how I got connected to other people from black community.”

Her relationship with the Douglass continued. When she had her children, she took them to Well Baby clinics there and up until last year, she and other members of her Saturday Eves book club, which celebrated its 45th anniversary last year, met at the Douglass on a regular basis.

Cotton’s children and grandchildren also participate in programming and services offered at the Douglass.

The Douglass is home to the Boys & Girls Club, Kalamazoo Public Library’s Alma Powell Branch Library, the NAACP and Mothers of Hope, and provides programming and meals for residents of the Northside neighborhood.

“My daughter used community mental health services at the Douglass before she passed and now her son — my grandson — will go to people at the Douglass for grief counseling,” Cotton said.

Sherry Thomas-Cloud, who was hired in as executive director of the Douglass in April, said a mental health clinic at the Douglass serves about 80 patients. About 90 children participate in a two-week golf camp each year and an additional 90 participate in rocket football. The Douglass serves 500 breakfasts and lunches a week as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture feeding program and serves another 400 to 500 people through a mobile food initiative.

“I was here two weeks and I got discouraged. At times, I felt: Do other people in this community care about these children and families on this side of town?” Thomas-Cloud said.

Moses Walker, a former executive director of the Douglass, said he has lived in the Northside neighborhood all of his life and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the Douglass’ doors open.

“I was talking with my brother, who’s a community barber. We were children of the Douglass. We went to nursery school, day camp, football games and dances there,” Walker said. “We want this to be here for future generations.

“After the United Way stated its intentions, (my brother) said to me, ‘What are we going to do?’”

Walker said the organization will have to go outside. But, he said the organization will have to go inside first because “the crisis is not over yet and we’ve got a lot of work to do and we will succeed.”

Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell said nothing will be accomplished in the Kalamazoo community without the Douglass.

“I’m balancing angst with excitement,” he said during the press conference. “If we as a community can’t see the importance of being about the business of making sure this organization is here — if we can’t see that after all of this, there’s something wrong with us.

“When Moses talks about the history of being a child of the Douglass, this is about you.”

The Douglass’ board of directors began to see financial red flags last fall, according to James Liggins, chairman of the board. In response, board members voted to eliminate eight positions, including that of the chief financial officer, and also cut some programming.

Liggins attributed the current problems to financial and organizational mismanagement that had been “brewing” for some time.

Thomas-Cloud said her job and that of the board going forward is to listen and to act.

“We will listen to our community stakeholders, families and children,” she said.

The Douglass needs to be in the community for the next nine decades, said Michael Rice, superintendent of the Kalamazoo Public Schools.

“Children can’t rise without the support of a community,” Rice said. “We underserve our children as it is. We can’t build a better community by taking a community down.”

Read 2348 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 September 2013 22:47

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