In a stuffy second-floor room at the Carver Community Center, Lola Cole waved a straggler in and pointed to a nearby table stacked with spicy cheese, fruit and vegetable platters, and Girl Scout cookies.
At the center’s annual meeting Tuesday evening, the board of directors would vote in new members and elect officers for the coming year. The 10 or so seated around a table would mull big questions, like how they were going to come up with $10,000 to have an audit done, and bicker over trivial questions, like whether Spike Lee or Jesse Jackson would be a better speaker at their annual dinner, even though neither have signed on to speak.
As kids shrieked and shouted downstairs over a game of basketball, the adults upstairs thought about what it meant for Carver to be in its 75th year. They had a year of uncertainty to put behind them, an annual dinner to plan and a new program to launch that they hoped would bring the nonprofit center a new stream of revenue.
“We’re facing the same thing that all not-for-profits are facing, and that’s to do more with less,” said Carver Executive Director Guido Iovinella. “Any contracts you have — whether they be with the state or county or whomever — are always in jeopardy now, just because of the fiscal situation at the state and county levels.”
Carver just came off a rough year. In 2012, it faced overdue taxes and threats of foreclosure and it was forced to suspend its daycare program, a needed service in the community that had become a money-losing operation over the years.
The organization began in 1938 as the George Washington Carver Welfare League. Citizens ran it out of individual members’ homes, where they brainstormed programming that might improve the quality of life for the city’s black community.
Today, Carver runs afterschool programs and early childhood education, teaches kids to avoid drugs and alcohol, and provides counseling services in the heart of the city’s most troubled neighborhood — Hamilton Hill.
Over time, some programming has come and gone at the facility at 700 Craig St. and several satellite locations around town. But it’s always remained a safe haven of sorts for the city’s troubled youth.
It’s where residents have gone to get back on track after a life of drugs and violence. It’s where parents leave their children after school, comforted that they’ll have activities to do off the streets.
It’s a place where the city’s female youth could drop in for suicide risk assessments, and a place that hands out free school supplies to needy families.
“Carver has always filled a need in this community, in the Hamilton Hill community in particular,” said Carver board Chairwoman Lola Cole. “I see us continuing in the future to do that, and being able to fill needs that perhaps somebody else cannot.”
During the recession, Carver laid off a half-dozen employees, but kept the same programming. In the last two years, it hasn’t been as lucky. Last October, the center suspended its daycare operations.
“It would be nice to have the child care program here, but in order to break even you have to have roughly 70 children in here,” said Iovinella.
The center received funding through the county Department of Social Services, which certified certain parents to receive the service based on their income and employment status. But in the last few years, full-time students without jobs lost their eligibility for the service, and parents avoided the entire hassle of becoming certified by dropping their older children off at the county library’s Hamilton Hill branch, which is housed on the second floor of the center.
Carver is also still dealing with the effects of the crisis it faced last August when private tax collection company American Tax Funding threatened to foreclose on a handful of city nonprofit groups that owed back tax debts. Many nonprofit groups were assessed city taxes a few years ago because they had not filled out the proper documents required for an exemption.
“It was just about $4,000 that we owed,” said Cole. “At one time we were actually served that foreclosure notice, and so we all went down to City Hall and met with the city attorney.”
Although the city worked out a deal with ATF to forgive the back taxes, there is still a lien on 201 Duane Ave. — a satellite building of Carver’s that no longer houses any programming.
“We want to sell it because we have no use for the building anymore,” said Iovinella. “So even though the city agreed to forgive [the tax debt], ATF still wants its money. So, you know the situation in our city and its ability to come up with money right now.”
In the meantime, Iovinella has a new program to debut next month. Carver will contract with the Department of Social Services to run a supervised visitation program for families going through child custody issues in the court system. The nonprofit center has already hired a coordinator, and as the caseload grows throughout the year, it will consider adding more employees.
“It could be anything from someone just coming into the system to people getting closer to getting their children back,” he said. “In those instances, we could be taking the kid with [the parent] to go to the mall and observing parent interactions with the child, seeing if the child is standoffish with the mother, or does the mother not really interact with the child, and that kind of thing.”
The contract could mean a new revenue stream for Carver, which is a big relief as it continues to stare down high heating bills for its main facility on Craig Street.
Upstairs in the library Tuesday, a red carpet was duct taped together and construction-paper Easter eggs adorned the windows. Board members tossed out dozens of ideas before finalizing the name for their annual dinner, which serves as Carver’s biggest annual fundraising event.
“An Evening with Carver: Celebrating our past, embracing our present and welcoming our future” will be held Friday, May 3, at 6 p.m. at the Water’s Edge Lighthouse, located at 2 Freemans Bridge Road in Glenville.