Emergency donations sought to save Big Brothers, Big Sisters

Several private donors managed to put Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass on life support, but the non-profit said Friday it will cease operations in a matter of weeks without significant help from the public.

Businesses and individuals are urged to donate whatever they can to an emergency fund at Central Bank, the group said in a written plea.

"I don't have any compunction at all to use the words 'desperate,' 'dire,' 'last gasp,'" said Alan Stein, former president of the Lexington Legends baseball team and longtime contributor to the non-profit.

Friday was scheduled to be the last day of operations for the 57-year-old non-profit, which matches boys and girls with older mentors, after board members privately voted this week to close.

"The board decided the best course of action might just be to cease operations," Stein said. "And, in fact, that may still be the case."

But Stein and several anonymous donors decided not to give up without a fight, infusing coffers with enough cash to buy Big Brothers Big Sisters two weeks. Stein said the group's leaders are hoping the organization can last until mid-February, when its biggest yearly fund-raising event, Bowl For Kids' Sake, begins.

News of the cash infusion came after the organization's employees had already packed their belongings in boxes, Stein said.

The organization's hard times became public in November 2009 when Big Brothers Big Sisters sued former office manager Bendrea Wilson, claiming she had embezzled more than $430,000 from the organization. Wilson eventually was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to embezzlement in federal court.

"From the day that woman started taking money from us, it's been a death spiral. We have been trying to climb out as best as we can," said longtime board member Leslie Baldwin. Hard economic times have made that climb too steep, she said.

Donations and corporate contributions have plunged, causing layoffs and service cuts to outlying counties. There are now 10 paid employees, down from 32 several years ago, Stein said. The organization has closed offices and stopped matching children with mentors in nine out of the 13 Central Kentucky counties it serves.

"There has been a real great effort here to control and contain costs," Stein said. "But the truth of the matter is we're not able to pay our bills. We're not able to make payroll."

If the organization makes it over the hump, the board of directors will likely be less top-heavy. Twenty-two of the 29 board members for Big Brothers Big Sisters resigned this week, Baldwin said.

Stein, as well as businessman and former board member Mike Scanlon, joined, bringing the board of directors to nine members.

"This is not a social joining or a figurative joining," Scanlon said. "We're going to put ourselves into this to do everything we can to make this organization successful."

Attorney Mark Wohlander, who represented Big Brothers Big Sisters in the civil case against Wilson, helped organize some of the private donations. He said one donor gave about $10,000.

At Wohlander's suggestion, the board agreed to try to liquidate assets, including selling the Ernie Hatfield Youth Camp, which was opened in 2009 as a summer retreat for children who participate in the program.

The camp sits on more than 75 acres in rural Jessamine County, on the site of Henry Clay's first vineyard, Baldwin said.

Stein said he hoped publicity about the non-profit's plight might draw candidates to be its new director. Former director Dale Suttles resigned in December.

The organization serves about 420 at-risk children, board members said, with a waiting list of about 300. Big Brothers Big Sisters matches mentors with children from troubled, often single-parent, homes.

Stein said it costs the organization about $1,000 annually for each child. He challenged individual donors and local businesses to sponsor one or more children for a year. The organization's money goes toward paying the staff, paying for rent and utilities for the office at 1016 Rushwood Court, and for outings and fund-raisers.

"I don't have any illusions. The reality is we might not be here in two weeks," Stein said. "It's up to the public now. It's as desperate as it gets."

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