Last year, Denise Cambridge's daughter walked across the street from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School to the Garrard Center for an after-school program. It was a daily routine that provided Cambridge peace of mind.
But Thursday, on the first day of school in Muscogee County, Cambridge won't have that convenience. The Garrard Center at 3007 Clover Lane will close permanently, and most of the girls in the program will be transported three miles to the organization's Baker Center at 3535 Levy Road.
"I'm really stuck in a hard place," Cambridge said recently. "My daughter doesn't want to go to the other center. I might have to make other arrangements."
The Garrard Center is located in the Winterfield neighborhood, where it has been a haven for girls for more than 40 years. In May, the organization announced that it was closing the facility to help reduce a $400,000 budget deficit. But the decision was later postponed to give parents an opportunity to raise $100,000 to save the center.
The campaign received support from elected officials who marched with the girls and their parents at a recent fundraiser. Those who participated included Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Sheriff John Darr, Marshal Greg Countryman, Columbus Councilor Bruce Huff, Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop, State Sen. Ed Harbison and State Reps. Calvin Smyre and Carolyn Hugley.
But when the July 31 deadline passed, only $25,000 to $30,000 was raised, said Center Director Lyndon Burch. He said most of the money would be returned to donors.
On Tuesday, Executive Director Dorothy Hyatt went to the center to update parents on the transition plan. Standing in the auditorium of the building that will soon be empty, she told parents, "This is real. This is about money. It's about resources and the lack thereof. We're going to make it happen and I believe you will be happy if you just give us a chance."
She said most of the girls in the Garrard program would be transported to the Baker Center from MLK elementary and other schools starting today. But some of the girls who attend Fort Middle School will be taken to the organization's Kolb Center, 4637 Kolb Ave.
Girls accustomed to walking home from the Garrard Center would be transported home from Baker, Hyatt further explained, a courtesy only available to those who used to walk home.
Hyatt said fees would not increase this year. Girls from Garrard would continue to pay $70 for the school year and $100 for the summer.
"I really believe in my heart that I won't miss a girl that wants to come," she said to the parents. "I have done everything in my power to make sure no girl is left without service and I'm committed to that."
But some parents who attended the meeting were still upset about the closing of the center.
Dalecia Williams, 32, said her two daughters, ages and 7 and 9, would no longer be a part of the Girls Inc. program. She said her mother is an employee at the Garrard Center and started the stepping program there.
Hyatt said Williams mother, Vanessa, and another employee will remain on staff until Aug. 15. Two other employees will be hired permanently at Baker, and Burch will stay with the organization until the last day of August.
Williams said her daughters go to Wynnton Academy, and her mother will watch her daughters after school while she's unemployed. She said the closing of the Garrard Center is a blow to the community. The staff was always loving and welcoming to the children, she said, but they never got resources similar to what was available at the Baker and Kolb centers.
"Baker and Kolb always have money for their kids' activities," she said. "Garrard was like the step-child."
Tonia McGhee has an 8-year-old daughter at Girls Inc. The girl was originally at the Booker T. Washington center that closed a few years ago. She was transferred to Baker but spent this summer at Garrard, because her class at Baker was full.
"I think Girls Inc. is a great program and reasonably priced," McGhee said. "I hate that they're closing them down and that they're having problems meeting the budget. My concern is if they close Garrard down, that could mean overcrowding at Baker."
Baker has a daily attendance of about 200 girls and six staff members, Hyatt said. Burch said the Garrard Center averaged about 100 girls during the school year. Hyatt said Baker can hold 750 girls and another 400 in the gym. She said there's a 1 to 17 staff to child ratio.
But McGhee thinks the girls from Garrard will be fine at Baker.
"My daughter has had great experiences at all three centers," she said.
But she also understands how parents who live in that neighborhood feel.
"Garrard is a smaller center. It has a more community feel to it," she said. "The people that have gone there a long time feel they're part of a family."
Hyatt, who grew up in the Girls Inc. program, told the parents that she understands their feelings, and she also has an emotional attachment to Garrard.
"This is the first place that I ever worked," she said. "But the truth is we have to cut this budget to help the overall organization. And if we don't, there's not going to be any Girls Inc. in Columbus. And that's just a fact."
She said some Girls Inc. programs in other cities have merged with Boys & Girls Clubs, but it's been her mission for 40 years to build the organization in Columbus.
"I believe in the value. I believe in the mission. I believe in 'Strong, Smart and Bold,'" she said. "I believe in gender-specific programming and that's what I've given my life to."