Supporters of the nonprofit volunteer group Durham Companions like to tout the organization's more than 20-year history. They point out that the group, which pairs children with adult mentors, has counted top-ranking police officers, RTP-based administrators, and even a local news anchor among its volunteers.
And the group did have a well-built reputation—until late last month, when a shoddy application for a county grant revealed that last year the agency provided few services and was now asking for a 300 percent funding increase. The bold request garnered a lengthy dressing-down from Durham county commissioners.
There were inconsistencies and errors on the application, no data to show the program was working, and the agency had turned in late progress reports to the county twice in the past two years.
"You really failed us. You failed us in every way," Commissioner Becky Heron said. "I'm sorry that that happened, but you really don't deserve funding this year."
Heron criticized the organization's board of directors for poor oversight. Commissioner Michael Page took the opportunity to address all nonprofits that had turned in late program and financial reports the past year—"disrespectful" and "negligent" behavior, he said. The county will not be so lenient this year, cutting the grace period for a late report in half to five days for the 36 agencies they're funding with $878,000. Groups that file late more than once in the coming year will lose their funds immediately.
"This is about a lack of responsibility of adults," Page said. "I honestly would hope that if these people that we employ are not doing their jobs, and these reports are late, that you realize it's ... really and truly bringing such a bad reputation to your agency."
As humbled as the agency's leaders might have been by the commissioners' harsh words, it's not they who bear the fallout from the agency's failings—it's the children who have been waiting as long as a year for a mentor.
At least 17 of 22 children referred to the program by court counselors, mental health providers, schools and parents in the past year are on a waiting list, said McDonald Vick, the agency's new executive director, who is an uncompensated volunteer.
Just four months into his new role, Vick, the retired N.C. Central University police chief, is trying to recruit volunteers and rebuild the renown the program had before financial troubles set in last year.
For more than 20 years, Durham Companions was part of a statewide network of 45 mentoring agencies under the Governor's One-on-One volunteer program. Former Gov. Jim Hunt started the initiative in 1982 to increase school attendance and reduce juvenile crime by matching court-involved or at-risk children and teens with adult mentors. But funding was sacrificed last year due to state budget cuts, and the programs have struggled to find funding elsewhere.
Locally, Durham Companions has been on a standing list of agencies to which the court system will refer troubled youth, said Donald Pinchback, Durham's chief juvenile court counselor.
"We have witnessed programs disappear from our resource list," he recently told county commissioners. With the loss of mental health programs, Medicaid funding and other aids to young adults, "we are depending more and more on mentors in order to fill the gaps for the needs of young people," he said.
Often, the consistent presence of another adult can ease the struggles children have with an absent parent, challenges fitting in at school, peer pressure, a traumatic event, or even just the frequent fears young teens have of growing up and accepting responsibility, Pinchback said.
Nine-year-old X'Zavier McFadden wasn't getting in trouble—he just needed another male role model in his life, said his mother Tecla McFadden. X'Zavier's great-grandfather and grandfather were active in his life, but both died when the boy was only 5. His father lives out-of-state. So three years ago, X'Zavier was paired with Larry Thomas, the senior military instructor in UNC-Chapel Hill's Army ROTC program.
For Thomas, who has 25- and 14-year-old daughters, spending time with X'Zavier is like having a son.
"I can't be his dad, but I can do what I can to help him have someone in his life," Thomas said, patting the boy on the head. The two have a lot in common—neither grew up with much involvement from their fathers and both had mothers that worked tirelessly to give them happy childhoods.
Together, the two have gone to UNC basketball and football games, collected shoes for victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti and played sports together, both outside and on video games. (X'Zavier wins most of the time, he shyly confesses.) He smiles and fidgets excitedly when he talks about playing with the Thomas' family dog, Quincy the dachshund.
"He's small, but I still like him," X'Zavier said. Having a mentor means having someone to look up to, and a place to feel belonging, he said.
"If someone in your family is not living with you, then you can be a part of their family."
At its height, Durham Companions was serving as many as 70 children, ages 6 to 17. Mentors were meeting with their children at least two hours a week, visiting one-on-one and also participating in events the agency would sponsor each month, including local community service days, trips to Charlotte history museums, and even fairly recently, a meet-and-greet with the UNC-Chapel Hill football team.
Mentors would file monthly reports on each child's progress, which were tracked by administrators of the Governor's One-on-One program at the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The Durham Companions staff, which included a full-time director and program coordinator and a part-time secretary, would also call the child's family each month to verify things were going well. Both mentors and parents received regular training on how to deal with issues such as drug abuse, gang involvement and depression in children.
Evidenced by annual reports and continued state support, Durham Companions and its sister agencies across the state were roaring along until state lawmakers nixed the programs' more than $1.5 million budget.
The state's financial support of the programs ranged from $16,500 to $66,000 a year and was only intended to provide a coordinator position, said William Lassiter, communications director for the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
With the other funding sources shrinking with the country's economy, the cuts proved fatal to programs in several counties across the state, including those serving Rowan, Stanly and Person counties. Here in the Triangle, the former One-on-One programs serving Wake, Orange and Chatham counties are still open, but fighting to stay afloat.
"It has been a struggle," said Kim Caraganis, director of the Chatham County Together! mentoring program. "We realize the population we serve are the ones that stand to lose most if we fail. So we do what needs to be done to get the job done. This includes volunteering our time, working when we should be off, and giving out of our pockets."
Durham was one of only five agencies awarded the largest possible grant, $66,000, which accounted for more than half its budget. The group was forced to lay off its part-time secretary and full-time program coordinator, and the board asked its former director, Renorda Herring, to work part time for a portion of her pay, Vick said.
But with the loss of state funding went the state oversight, required record-keeping and pay for the people keeping the records. Vick said he's trying to piece together what happened since last June.
"We're still going through the files," he said.
From county reports filed this year, which are rife with accounting errors and even list the wrong grant amounts from the United Way of the Greater Triangle and the city of Durham, it appears once its budget was slashed to about $30,000, it did little for its mentors or children. Of the funding that was left, $21,000 came from a grant from the United Way, and almost all of it went directly to pay rent for the organization's downtown offices and benefits for the exiting director.
The group hosted just one event last fall before canceling the rest of the year's activities, and only about 14 of 29 mentors continued their relationships with the children assigned to them, according to the reports and Vick. During the past year, only five children were matched, Vick said. When Durham Companions was under state guidelines, it was asked to maintain at least 34 matches and make 16 new pairings a year, according to a state report.
When he stopped getting calls from Durham Companions, mentor Larry Thomas said he called the program to find out about the lapse in activities.
"I'm big on oversight," he said. Because the organization wasn't sponsoring any events, it became incumbent upon him and other dedicated mentors to keep their own relationships going.
Throughout the year, county staff worked with Herring to set goals for the program and gather data that would measure success, but Herring failed to follow through with gathering the data, according to a county report. The organization also had missed reporting deadlines to the county, and in January, it lost funding from the city after turning a program report in a month late.
Soon after, the agency filed the county grant application that caused so much strife with commissioners. Among its numerous errors, the application showed two different amounts it was requesting from county commissioners—both $15,775 and $40,000—and said the funds would be used for pay raises for the coordinator and secretary positions, which no longer existed at the agency.
When he appeared before the county commissioners, Vick had no explanation for the sorry grant application and its jumbled numbers. He simply apologized.
"It was inaccurate," Vick acknowledged. "It's not the way Durham Companions in the past has done business, and business will not be conducted that way in the future. And I promise this commission, if you do fund this program, you will get your reports on time, and they will be done correctly."
When commissioners finished stating their dissatisfaction, they did tack $4,670 onto the county budget for Durham Companions, the same amount granted last year. If the group meets all reporting deadlines, it will be allowed to come before the board in February and ask for more funding.
"I'm trying not to punish the recipients of these services because of the negligence of the management," Page, chairman of the commissioners, said.
Without funding, he said, it would not be the program's staff bearing the loss so much as the children depending on them.