When the school day ends at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, about 50 girls walk across the street to the Garrard Center, a Girls Inc. facility that has provided programs for neighborhood youths for more than 40 years.
But in August, the doors of the center will close, and the girls will be bused to two other facilities, Girls Inc. Executive Director Dorothy Hyatt recently announced. The decision to close the center because of financial problems has sparked a strong community backlash against Girls Inc., putting Hyatt on the defensive as she tries to reduce a $400,000 deficit.
Some parents and community leaders have launched a spirited campaign to save the center, calling for intervention from the mayor, state representatives and other elected officials.
Among those advocating on behalf of the center are its director, Lyndon Burch, Councilman Bruce Huff and the Rev. Willie Phillips, chief executive officer of Winterfield on the Move Against Drugs. Phillips described Garrard as a safe haven for neighborhood girls and a community gathering place where youth job training and other programs have been held. Two years ago, the center was the venue for a Stop the Violence banquet, he said, and elected officials like state Sen. Ed Harbison and state Rep. Carolyn Hugley attended.
Now, Phillips wants them to step up and help save the neighborhood facility.
"When I heard about this problem, it was shocking," Phillips said of the closing. "I couldn't believe it, as bright as this place is for the community. It keeps a lot of our girls off of drugs. It keeps them from walking the streets. And the parents don't have to worry about anything."
Chericka Brookins said her 11-year-old daughter, Shericka Marshall, goes to the center after school every day. It's within walking distance from their home and very convenient.
Brookins said she and other parents found out about the closing on April 29 when Hyatt went to the center and broke the news. She and other parents who attended the meeting said they were told the center is closing because of low summer attendance and problems maintaining the building.
Parents are angry that they were not notified of the organization's financial problems earlier and given an opportunity to raise funds.
"How they came to us as parents was wrong," Brookins said in a recent interview. "We asked, did you notify (Habitat for Humanity)? Did you seek help? Did you ask the parents, 'OK, what can we do?' You don't know who we know. You didn't do none of that."
Parents also wanted to know why they weren't told Girls Inc. was planning to close the center at the beginning of the year when the fee jumped from $20 to $70 for the school year. Parents pay another $100 during the summer, according to Hyatt.
Brookins said she doesn't want her daughter going anywhere else because she likes the special attention she receives at the center. "The staff loves our kids," she said. "The staff knows our kids. Our kids know them. Our kids feel comfortable with them. They wouldn't have gone in other neighborhoods and tried this."
Girls Inc. is a United Way agency that received $487,000 from the 2012 campaign, putting it in the top five of all organizations funded, according to United Way Executive Director Scott Ferguson. The organization has three centers in the Columbus area: the Garrard Center at 3007 Clover Lane, the Kolb Center at 4637 Kolb Ave. and its flagship facility, the Baker Center, at 3535 Levy Road.
Hyatt said the center serves about 85 girls daily during the school year. Burch put the number at more than 100, with an average summer attendance of 65-70 girls. About half of the girls come from Martin Luther King Elementary School, and the rest are bused from other areas.
Hyatt said she has already received calls from Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Hugley and other elected officials regarding the center. She said she thinks the campaign to save the building is being orchestrated by Burch, who she believes is concerned about losing his job. She said there are currently two full-time employees and three part-time employees at Garrard, and she'll keep as many as she can on staff.
Burch said he believes Hyatt underestimated the character of the parents.
"My parents are very intelligent people and they are aware of the things that have been going on with the organization," he said. "The parents are the ones actually leading this effort. But I do think there are ways to deal with this problem other than just closing the center and putting 100 to 120 girls out without after-school care."
Hyatt said the center is closing because the organization faces a deficit upward of $400,000. The executive committee went line-by-line through the budget and concluded that closing Garrard would save the organization $125,00O a year.
Hyatt said the United Way funds 29 percent of the organization's budget, and families pay 10 percent.
"So we're left with the rest of a $1.7 million budget to make up. And even though I've been fundraising a long time, and I'm pretty good at it, that kind of money is hard to come by."
She said the organization has had a deficit ever since building the Baker facility and adding new programs, which increased expenses while funding levels remained the same. But it has survived through capital campaigns and other fundraisers. She said the organization raised family fees at the beginning of the year to help with the deficit.
"We have enough money for probably about three years," Hyatt said. "But the numbers don't lie. We're still operating on a deficit. We're using money that was raised in a capital campaign to cover that deficit, and you can't keep having capital campaigns every year. What I want to do before I retire in the next two and half years is raise endowment money and use interest off the endowment to support our budget."
Hyatt said she also hopes to get some help from the Muscogee County School District. She said she's scheduled to meet with Superintendent David Lewis on Wednesday and plans to ask for help with transportation. She will also propose using MLK Elementary as a satellite so students at the school won't have to travel to another Girls Inc. center during the school year.
Hyatt said she was director of the Garrard Center when she started with the Girls Inc. more than 30 years ago, and she cried when she realized it had to close.
She said the center was built in the late 1960s on swampy land that was never suitable for the structure. In the 1980s, she had engineers come in to stabilize some columns and posts and pump concrete under the building. But it was only a temporary fix, she said, and the organization can no longer afford to maintain the building.
She said the Baker Center was built in south Columbus during the 1990s because she realized that the Garrard Center would have to close one day, and she wanted to have centers in both north and south Columbus. Both the Baker and Kolb centers have pools and other amenities not available at Garrard, she said.
She said cutting the expense will help keep fees affordable for low-income girls enrolled at the centers.
"I'm not saying some middle-income girls don't come here because they do. We welcome any girl," she said. "But if we out-price the girl that needs us most, I don't want anything to do with this. That's not what I do.
"A lot of affiliates throughout the nation are doing just that," she added. "They're serving middle-and upper-middle income girls so they could continue operating."
Hyatt said some affiliates are also merging with the Boys and Girls Clubs. But she believes in gender-specific programs.
Ferguson said Hyatt and the treasurer of Girls Inc. met with him about three months ago and told him they were having cash-flow issues and were considering closing a center.
He said United Way has no say in whether or not the center closes.
"That really is their board's responsibility and their management," he said. "We don't fund agencies. We fund programs."