Nonprofit may be forced to shut down youth center, restructure
Project Yes still sounds like success. Open the door to the youth center, located in Lafayette, and the sounds of laughing, shouting, squealing, talking and even a mid-afternoon vacuum cleaning session drift out.
But Project Yes has been hit hard by the recession and is looking at ways to restructure itself to manage a $41,000 shortfall. The organization provides arts-based service-learning for students ages 5 to 12, runs a youth center for middle and high school students and organizes two annual community events — the Martin Luther King, Jr. March for Peace and the service-learning day SeLebration. The most expensive items in the budget are the youth center’s rent and utilities, so to stand a chance at surviving, the organization’s directors are considering closing the center. That would bring Project Yes back to its roots as a project-based organization, doing programming where needed and when needed, but without a location open for teenagers five days a week.
Most of the 15 to 30 young adults, ages 11 to 18, who spend their afternoons at the center bike or walk from their houses. At the center, they can participate in workshops that range from hip hop dance to crochet to cooking to vision boards to bookbinding. They come, they say, because it’s something to do. It’s fun. Their friends are there. And some of them come every day the center is open.
When Max Hittle was in sixth grade, he heard his friends talking about Project Yes.
“I came to check it out, and I haven’t missed a day since,” he says. “It’s a good place for me. It’s better than just going home and not doing anything … It’s the best place to be during the summer, I think. It’s better than Elitch’s or WaterWorld or anything.”
He does art projects, plays on the computers and, on a hot summer day, loaded up water balloons to toss.
“I’ve learned so many things here. I became more outgoing,” he says. “I was so shy, I didn’t really want to talk to anybody, but here I can talk to whoever comes in.”
As a student employee for Project Yes, he spends some time answering phones and cleaning the center, and has heard a little about the financial difficulties facing Project Yes.
“It’s really bad right now.” he says. “It’s getting worse day by day because we’re losing funders … It’s starting to get a little scary.”
The idea of the center closing distresses him. “It kind of makes me feel sad, like sick to my stomach,” he says. “It would be terrible if this place closed.”
Isabel “Izzy” Porras heard about Project Yes through her friends and thought it sounded neat.
“Basically for us kids … It’s a place where we can come and be safe essentially and do what we’d like and be with people we like and trust,” she says “It’s just a trusting, very positive place to be.”
Porras started coming to the youth center when she started high school.
“It’s just been a real positive experience for me,” she says. “Because of the programs that were offered here and the tutoring, I was able to get ahead on my school work and I think I’m going to graduate early this year.”
Tracee Hennigar, Project Yes’s executive director, has been searching for corporate sponsors, subsidized rent, donations or another organization to partner with — anything to consolidate, collaborate and keep the core of the organization intact through a recession that cost it some key foundation grants.
“What we’re trying to do is trying to really focus on getting funds on either some sort of business sponsorship or individual donorship to help us with our fiscal shortfall,” Hennigar says.
She was hired in May knowing Project Yes (Youth Envisioning Social change) was having financial troubles. But, she says, she didn’t know how few tools and resources would be available to her. Project Yes does not have a board of trustees, which would typically be looked to for help through a tight financial situation. There’s a donor list, but according to Hennigar, those people have not been contacted since 2007.
“There’s been no outreach at least three to four years,” she says. “You have to nurture and inform and communicate and build those relationships.”
Hennigar is reaching out now to get the word out that the community might lose one of the only nonprofits in the county that serves young people with both a safe space and an arts-based service-learning curriculum. She’s also looking at what funding they do have, what programs are strong, how the organization began, and how to move forward with that.
What exactly a restructured Project Yes running on half the budget will look like remains to be determined.
“I think a lot of it depends on where we’ll have a really sustainable source of funding we can really count on and grow from,” says Allie Van Buskirk, the servicelearning partnership coordinator and interim executive director, who has worked at the center for more than three years. She and Hennigar are focused on finding the money to lengthen the time they have to restructure the organization in positive ways and diversify the revenue streams for the future.
Carole MacNeil and Beth Krensky were graduate students at Harvard when a school project led them to start what grew into Project Yes.
“We felt like the youth voice was missing from a lot of the discussions that were happening around education and youth development,” she says.
They assembled a group of young people to talk about the issues impacting them and create an art project to do something positive about those issues.
“It was really only supposed to be a one-time deal, a one-semester project,” says MacNeil, who now works as a nonprofit consultant and sits on the advisory board after working for Project Yes for 10 years.
But the young people it served told them it had to be an organization, she says. Project Yes relocated to Colorado in 1994.
“The original vision, I think, was really about changing the way that we see young people from being the leaders of tomorrow, which is language we often hear, to being the leaders of today,” MacNeil says.
Thousands of young people have participated in the program over the years, and it was at the request of those young people that the youth center was created in 2000.
“To lose the center would be a huge loss not just to the young people who come there and who participate in the programs. It would be a real loss to the community, as well, because this is a place that’s nurturing young people to be positive forces for change in their community,” she says.
But in some ways, it would bring the organization full circle. The center provides an important service, MacNeil says, but if the organization survives as a service-learning program, it can continue to do its work in the community.
“I see that as coming back to the heart of the mission,” MacNeil says.
The center sees roughly 15 kids a day in the summer and 30 during the school year. The service learning programs can reach up to 300 kids in a semester, giving it a broader impact at a lower cost, Van Buskirk says.
The Martin Luther King Jr. march in Lafayette and SeLebration serve almost 2,000 community members and are primarily funded by Project Yes. To stay in Lafayette, she says, those events are going to need support, especially from the city.
“We’re unique in the fact that there’s not a lot of sister organizations doing the same thing we are,” Hennigar says. “I would think that Lafayette would be very proud of that. And Boulder and Erie.”
As Project Yes’s programming coordinator, 90 percent of Bryan Higgins’s job is direct service — meaning 90 percent of his workweek is spent with the kids at the youth center.
“Even though it’s harder for all the nonprofits to stay open, now is the time when they are needed most,” Higgins says.
Whether restructuring means focusing on the programming or the center, he says, it’s going to be hard for the kids.
“It’s hard to think about the youth center closing.
For a lot of these kids,” he says, “it would take an integral part of their lives out.”
Hennigar and Van Buskirk both stressed that the organization is just focusing on getting to excellence in one area.
“Project Yes isn’t disappearing. Every ounce of support we can get right now will make the biggest difference in ensuring that the restructure goes smoothly,” Van Buskirk says. “Nonprofits are community-based, and we’re here to serve a need in the community. I think that’s kind of our hope — that the community responds to that and wants us to be here and takes action to keep us here.”
1306 Centaur Dr., Lafayette Open Mon.-Fri., 3 p.m.-6 p.m.