Sunday, November 19, 2017
News Roundup

North Pinellas nonprofit faces closure without help

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DUNEDIN — Nonprofits need at least three things to run smoothly: money, volunteers and leaders to coordinate them.

Faith in Action of Upper Pinellas has none of those now.

Since 1995, the group has provided North Pinellas seniors and disabled people with the transportation, exercise programs, housecleaning, repair assistance, emergency cellphones and other services they need to remain independent.

But former executive director Carmen Wilson says a series of calamities is threatening to shut down those services for more than 200 clients.

When the economy soured, local governments, churches and other agencies cut or halted their funding of Faith in Action. And the organization's volunteer base has dwindled over the last two and a half years from about 70 to six, as people returned to work or moved away.

The board of directors, Wilson says, had grown "lax" in its efforts to meet or plan fundraisers. The board fired its program manager after she failed to submit grant applications in a timely manner or at all, according to Wilson. The manager could not be reached for comment.

In September, board members voted to dissolve the nonprofit.

While Wilson, now a volunteer, says she has used her own money and other means to keep a portion of Faith in Action's services afloat, she will notify clients Monday that the group faces collapse if no one steps up to help by Jan. 31.

"We need volunteers, board members, money," said Wilson, who estimates it would take $75,000 to $100,000 to extend operations for a year.

Wilson, a Faith in Action board member for two years before being promoted to executive director in 2007, says the group's financial decline started during her tenure. But the real snowball, she said, began in 2011.

Wilson, who left her director job in May 2010 to become program director at Citizens Alliance for Progress in Tarpon Springs, stayed on as a Faith in Action volunteer, assisting her replacement with grant writing, payroll and other accounting duties.

Meanwhile, the board of directors has decreased over the years from seven members to three in 2011. After her departure, Wilson says, members appeared to accomplish little during their monthly meetings.

Two board members who spoke briefly with the Tampa Bay Times seconded Wilson's analysis.

"After Carmen left, we didn't have the right person in place" to guide the organization, said board member Ricardo Guice. He added that it was also hard to find and hold onto board members able or willing to balance work and volunteer commitments.

Said president Sandra Kociolek: "We kept losing grants and we've been losing volunteers over the years. And I firmly believe it's due to the economy."

Right now, Wilson said, Faith in Action's bank account contains $800. Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Dunedin continues to bear the cost of shuttling seniors to the grocery store and other appointments in its church van. And a monthly $580 reimbursement from the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas is funding the aerobics classes Faith in Action volunteers conduct at nine assisted living facilities. Wilson expects she will have to pull another $1,500 out of her pocket to assist with tax filings and other January bills.

The minimum $75,000 she says is needed to stop Faith in Action's downward spiral would cover a year's worth of costs for four staffers, volunteers' mileage reimbursements, rent and supplies for an office within First Presbyterian Church in Dunedin, exercise equipment, holiday gifts and food for clients, fundraisers, newsletters for clients without computers and more.

"With that, I'm sure I could get some grants coming through to help out a little more," Wilson said.

Dunedin city officials, who received a letter from Wilson in November seeking help, are not convinced. City Manager Rob DiSpirito said the city, which in the past has donated sums between $12,000 and $15,000 to Faith in Action, declined Wilson's request because the group's problems appear to extend far beyond money.

Staff research determined there are other local groups that offer similar transportation services, sometimes for a nominal fee.

"Even if (Faith in Action) had the money, it would be a long rebuilding process beating the bushes to find people to volunteer, with no guarantee it would work," DiSpirito said. "They weren't going to be able to pull it off with help from Dunedin alone."

Wilson hasn't given up hope.

If Faith in Action does shut down, she said she is committed to eventually reinstituting the program with a new name, location and "serious" board and staff members.

"It's my baby, it's my heart," she said. "I live and breathe trying to help senior citizens remain at home."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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