(HELENA) Big Brothers Big Sisters has been part of the Helena community for 50 years and the Great Falls community for more than 40. In that time, the organization has helped provide mentors for thousands of local kids in difficult situations.
Colleen Brady is president and CEO of BBBS of Helena and Great Falls, which formed when the two communities’ agencies merged in 2015.
“There is no other program that is as effective as Big Brothers Big Sisters’ one-on-one mentoring program,” Brady said. “We are a prevention program that specifically is designed to help kids earlier on in their life.”
But Brady says her organization is now facing a dire financial situation, after state budget cuts took away a huge portion of its funding. She warns, if something doesn’t change, they could be forced to close their doors.
In January, Brady said she learned BBBS would not be receiving about $43,000 from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program – federal money distributed through the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. She said the organization stepped up its fundraising efforts to deal with that reduction.
“So we anticipated that, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job in trying to make up that original loss,” she said.
But the state’s budget picture worsened throughout the year. When the Montana Legislature met for a special legislative session last month, they approved $76 million more in budget cuts to address a massive revenue shortfall.
That meant Big Brothers Big Sisters took another funding cut. This time, most of the losses were in funding from the Board of Crime Control, which supported BBBS as a preventive measure against juvenile crime.
All together, Brady said BBBS lost about $115,000 this year alone – about a quarter of its $500,000 annual budget. Now, she says the organization is receiving no public funding.
BBBS has already started cutting back its operations. The number of children the organization is matching has fallen by more than half. Leaders recently canceled high school programs in both Helena and Great Falls.
“In the process of doing that alone, we lost 111 kids,” Brady said. “That was the first step.”
Brady says the organization can’t afford to make many more reductions without affecting the services they provide.
“Because we’re a direct service program, we don’t have a lot of overhead,” she said. “It’s our salaries, because our salaries go to the case managers.”
According to Brady, each case manager is only able to handle about 70 kids at a time.
Two years ago, Big Brothers Big Sisters had nine employees between its Helena and Great Falls offices. It’s now down to five. Brady said she had to make the latest cut this week.
“As hard as that is, the worst part will be to tell those kids they’re going to lose their match,” she said.
Now, BBBS leaders are going to work, to try to prevent that from happening. Brady said she will reach out again to businesses and individuals who have already supported the organization. She is also appealing to people who previously volunteered for the program as “Bigs.”
“If the lights go out on Big Brothers Big Sisters, I think that’s going to be a loss to this community,” she said. “That diminishes that bright light we have here, and I don’t want that to happen.”
Brady said it costs about $1,250 to support a match for one child, but that any donation is welcomed. She said BBBS won’t add extra fundraising events next year, but they are encouraging as many people as possible to take part in their regular fundraisers. Bowl for Kids’ Sake fundraisers will be held in Helena on Jan. 26 through 28 and in Great Falls on Feb. 9 and 10. Brady said there will also be one in Boulder on Mar. 17.