After an employee embezzled more than $430,000 in 2008 and '09, forcing Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass to the brink of closing its doors in 2011, the organization was recently named a 2014 Gold Standard agency for the success it achieved last year.
It was one of 10 organizations recognized by the Nationwide Leadership Council of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America for not only meeting the national criteria for a quality program, but also for increasing revenue and the number of children served.
So, just how big a deal is this?
Ralph Coldiron, executive director, didn't know at first. He called his mentor, Jeri Swinton, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Kentuckiana, who has been with BBBS since 1989.
"I said we just got named a Gold Standard," Coldiron said. "Is that a big deal? She said that is a huge deal."
"Considering the number of challenges they have had in the past, I told Ralph he needs to fly this up a flagpole," Swinton said. "They have always served a good quality program and now they are getting the national recognition."
It is the first such designation for the local organization, one that Swinton said her organization received several years ago.
Natalie Thompson, program director, said to be eligible for the Gold Standard designation, a local organization had to end the year with more matches than it began with; it had to retain those matches and offer continuous support; and it had to increase revenue.
"We have a professional staff that stays with that match," Thompson said. "We contact everyone in the match a certain number of times" to ensure all is well.
Swinton said some agencies can do some of those things, but to grow the number of matches as well as grow revenue by at least 5 percent is hard to do.
"Our staff is really passionate about this and loyal to the organization," Thompson said.
In addition to being recognized, the 10 award winners are also eligible to be named Agency of the Year at the Big Brothers Big Sisters National Conference to be held June 2 and 3 in Philadelphia.
"We are in the running," Thompson said. "That would be amazing."
The nine other agencies are BBBS of Franklin County (in Greenfield, Mass.); BBBS of Metropolitan Chicago; BBBS of Greater Kansas City; BBBS of Metro Milwaukee; BBBS of Tampa Bay; BBBS of Greater Pittsburgh; BBBS of Santa Barbara County; BBBS of Southern Minnesota; and BBBS of the Greater Miami Valley (in Moraine, Ohio).
"We were really surprised and pleased when we were notified of the Gold Standard," said board member Alan Stein, who with Mike Scanlon, CEO of Thomas & King, is credited with keeping the local organization afloat in 2011 until it became financially stable again. "It is mostly to do with our staff and with the financial responsibility, and all the changes we have made in getting the agency back on good footing."
He said the board is providing the leadership necessary for the staff to continue the growth of excellence in the agency. Plus, he said, "our staff has a level of confidence that they didn't have before."
And while they can duly take a moment to pat one another on the back, they are still acutely aware that more needs to be done.
There are 100 boys on the waiting list for a big brother, Thompson said. The need for big sisters is not as acute because girls are matched quicker.
"We have a lot of boys apply for services," she said. Many of the boys are in foster care, living with grandparents, other relatives or single mothers, and many do not have male role models.
Men volunteer less often, either because they are unsure of their ability to relate to children or because of time restraints. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old.
"We ask for a year's commitment," Thompson said. "And we ask you to spend time with the child once a week. We will help you if you don't know what to do."
That support system is one of the reasons BBBS of the Bluegrass is being honored.
"We've been making a comeback," Thompson said.
"They really deserve a huge recognition for that," Swinton said. "The matches they are making are having a deep impact for those children. They have a higher chance to graduate and to have an economic impact on the community."
And that is more important than any other designation.