Photo Caption: Rhonda Bentley, director of the Nelsonville Communitiy Center, poses at the center Saturday.
The Nelsonville Community Center is again facing an uncertain future as funds that saved it from closing during the holiday season last year have dried up and money has gotten as tight as ever.
The center located in downtown Nelsonville has been making moves toward self-sufficiency but director Rhonda Bentley fears that it may be too late. She set up a thrift store this past summer to help raise money to keep the center open. She also brought in a karate instructor, who holds classes three times a week.
Bentley said Saturday that if given enough time she thinks that the thrift store and the karate classes at the center would make enough money to allow the private non-profit to continue to operate, but time is not something the center has a lot of.
"The whole idea was that it would make us more independent and not have to be bumming money," she said of the karate classes. "That was the idea with the thrift store also… I think it could work, but I think we waited too long."
The center, which provides child-care and education programs, free weekly meals for community members, family events and a free store with clothing and home items, was on the verge of closing last December when, shortly before Christmas, representatives of two area organizations handed her checks totaling $45,000.
The money came from Volunteer Energy Services, a private energy company, and the Baird Brothers Co. Foundation; the first donated $25,000, while the second kicked in another $20,000.
Athens County Children Services had previously run the center, but lost government funding for it in the summer of 2009. Bentley, who worked for the agency, decided at that time to quit and try to run the operation as a private non-profit.
She said Saturday that in the first year she used her retirement savings to fund the operation, but it turned into a struggle after that was depleted.
She called the money donations last year a miracle and said that almost half of it had to go toward unpaid bills while the other half kept the center operating in 2012.
"That was a gift, and amazing, and (now it's) gone," she said.
Her main expenses, she said, are rent and utilities. In the past, the center has helped those who need help with food and utility payments, but Bentley said it can no longer do so.
"We're pretty desperate ourselves right now," she said.
Bentley said that she has been looking for other grants to keep the center running but most of those that are available are programming grants, not operational. This means that there are stipulations on how the money can be spent that prevent her from using it to pay rent and utilities.
"There is no light at the end of the tunnel right now. Grants are so specific to programming," she said. "You apply for a grant and they give us X amount of money, and that money has to be used for that program. Above and beyond that, you still have to come up with the rent and utilities to be able to provide that program. Operating grants are practically non-existent. That was an amazing thing that happened to us last year. It was probably a one-time thing that was like a miracle."
Bentley said she was hoping those funds would buy her some time to catch up and figure out a way to become self-sufficient but there just hasn't been quite enough time.
She said it hurts to be so desperate every winter at the center.
"You just get to a point where you don't want to keep begging all the time," she said.
There aren't a lot of options left, Bentley acknowledged. She said that she has talked to Nelsonville city officials about the city helping operate the center as the city of Athens does with the Athens Community Center, though those efforts haven't come up with any solution.
"We've been getting a lot of support from people with donations," she said. "But it's just not enough to sustain rent and utilities. I've had to cut programming."
She said that she has a lot of volunteers who do everything that they can, but they get worn out over time, and there simply aren't enough people any more to offer much of the programming the center has typically offered.
"The volunteers I have are great but you can wear them out pretty quick," she said.
When asked how much longer the center could hold out, Bentley said she just doesn't know.
"With word of mouth, we're having more and more people coming in (for the thrift store)," she said. "And I think the more money you make there, of course, it's going to help. Plus you have more donations. And with the karate classes, I think it could work. I think the things we have in place to be more self-sustaining would work. But I just wonder if we didn't start too late."