TAKE 5: Nonprofit providing for students, but challenged by budget woes

Aug. 02, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

This week, we Take 5 with Heather McKenzie, the executive director of Communities In Schools of Lee County, about the CIS school supply drive and other projects in which the organization is involved. Heather joined CIS four years ago after serving as a volunteer with the organization for more than two years. Prior to joining CIS, she worked in retail management. She and her husband, Murphy, are expecting their first child; Heather has two children, Alexandria and Gabriel, from a previous marriage.

Why is the school supply drive so important to the community?

School supplies cost more than ever, according to the latest “backpack index,” recently released by Huntington Bank. The cost of equipping K-12 public school students for the 2014-2015 school year has jumped as much as 20 percent, says the Huntington study. And according to the National Retail Federation, total spending on back-to-school items is expected to reach $74.9 billion this year — up about 3 percent from $72.5 billion in 2013.

Which means that now, more than ever, it is important to donate school supplies to make sure our students here in Lee County start the year ready for success. Each year Communities In Schools of Lee County hosts a school supply drive to collect those needed “basics” for students and teachers. Last year we helped hundreds of students and teachers and gave away thousands of items from pencils to book bags. Our school supply drive has already begun and goes through Aug. 22. We also have multiple drop-off locations this year — Walmart, all three Walgreens locations, BB&T (the Spring Lane and downtown Sanford locations) and the CIS office on Steele Street. If you don't have time to shop or don’t know what to buy, you can always send in a monetary donation to CIS marked “school supplies,” and we will shop for you!

While this drive doesn't cover every student or our whole community I think it puts a big dent in the gap of students starting with no school supplies at all. There is a complete list of suggested items to donate on our website at www.cisleecounty.org.

Another CIS program, BackPack Pals, also is getting ready to start with the new school year. What can you tell us about that?

One of our biggest programs the last seven years has been BackPack Pals. This is our weekend feeding program that provides needed nutrition to students who have been identified at the school. Children cannot concentrate at school when they are hungry, and while BackPack Pals doesn't alleviate the problem, it does alleviate some of the stress that these children face coming from food insecure households. The program typically runs for about 40 weeks and serves approximately 325 children each week in 10 of the Lee County Schools.

The program runs mostly on volunteers, who pack the food bags and then deliver to the schools. We do have local donors and some of our local churches that provide monetary support for the program, but unfortunately, we've seen a decrease in donations the past two years. With a decrease in food donations, a decrease in monetary donations and the rising cost of food the last two years, we have actually finished the program year in the negative. We have done everything to continue the program on the same level as we were used to providing (i.e. the same number of students, schools, etc.), but this year, without additional funding, we will have to look at ways to cut costs.

So what about funding — what's the funding status of CIS?

I think the biggest misconception is that nonprofits can just “go get a grant” to cover costs, and unfortunately, that is just not true. While every nonprofit probably writes quite a few grants each year, grants are more competitive than ever because of the economy, and foundation money is drying up as well. Also, grants are very specific about what you can use the money you receive from them for. Nonprofits are just like any other business — we still have expenses that have to be covered. If we don't have staff, we can't serve students.

At the end of the school year, our board of directors had to make a very difficult decision to let two staff members go. It wasn't due to performance. It was strictly that we didn't have the financial resources to cover their salaries for the upcoming year. Of course this means that we won't be able to serve as many children. It also means a loss of programing; it's a huge loss for us in general.

That is why our local fundraising efforts are so important to us. Currently we receive no funding from the city, the county or Lee County Schools to support our mission. While other CIS affiliates around the state do, we do not at this time. We depend on the support of the community who see us and what we do as a benefit to Lee County.

What are your fundraising plans for the coming year?

Our biggest fundraiser of the year is quickly approaching. On Saturday, Oct. 25, we will hold our 2nd Chance Prom fundraiser at the Dennis Wicker Civic Center. It's a great time to show your support for CIS and for the children we serve by enjoying a fun evening full of music, dancing, auctions, 50/50 drawings, the coveted King and Queen crownings, refreshments and desserts. Last year was our first year hosting this event and it was a ton of fun. We had guests from ages 21 to 71 who wanted to “relive” a great prom experience or create a new prom memory because they didn't have a great prom to begin with.

The evening's attire is dressy, but that ranges from tuxes and gowns to "church clothes" to a suit & cocktail dress and even retro prom outfits for some. Basically, we tell people to dress it up as much as they'd like. Tickets are $30 per person or $50 a couple — a very reasonable night out for a couple or a group of friends!

Sponsorships also are available ranging from $1,000 to $250. Tickets and sponsorships can be purchased online at www.cisleecounty.org or call the office for more details (919) 718-5426.

We also have another Grocery Store Dash planned for the spring. We held the first Grocery Store Dash back at the beginning of June — fashioned after the game show “Supermarket Sweep.” We sold raffle tickets for a chance to run through Piggly Wiggly and fill your cart during 90 seconds. Our winner, Krista Lawrence, received $338.71 worth of groceries for her $10 raffle ticket – Not bad, right?

What other needs is CIS helping to fulfill?

One thing that we are actively working toward is growing our partnerships within the community, whether it's faith-based, business/industry or civic groups. Partnerships are a win-win-win situation for all of us; they help the school, they help CIS, and hopefully, it is a worthwhile activity for the business. According to a recent study from United Health Care, employees are happier and healthier when they are able to volunteer. Volunteers also feel a deeper connection to their community. So any organization wishing to be contacted about forming a partnership can call the CIS office, and we will be happy to come present to your organization.

We are also planning to continue to offer our Lunch Buddy program at certain elementary schools this year. This is a great opportunity for businesses and their employees to volunteer. Lunch Buddies is designed to give students a friend and role model during their lunch time at school. Sometimes students only have an adult to interact with at school, so it is a great positive relationship builder. Volunteers only need to commit to a 30-minute “session” every two weeks.

CIS will continue its on-site presence at SanLee Middle School. Our mentoring and after-school programs will start once school is up and running. Anyone interested in mentoring students one on one can contact Lauren Black, CIS site coordinator, at SanLee Middle School.

CIS also has lots of ways to stay informed with all of our projects, programs and services throughout the year. Our Facebook page is always very interactive, and we keep our website up to date — where you can also sign up for our newsletter. We are also on VolunteerLee and post volunteer opportunities there when they arise.

CIS will be looking for committed volunteers to come once per month, on a designated Thursday, to help with BackPack Pal food packing and distribution. If you are looking to volunteer for any of our programs, you can always contact me at the CIS office at (919) 718-5426 or cisleedirector@gmail.com.