FREELAND — The Veterans Resource Center is down, but not out.
A lack of funding, a raise in rent and the property management’s desire for a three-year lease has forced the VRC to close its community activity center on Main Street as of Wednesday. But the move is not a death knell, said VRC cofounder Judith Gorman.
“We’re sort of framing it as an opportunity for more people to get involved and by spring we’re hoping to have a big splash in the paper about how we’ve used this dormant period, in a sense, to sprout out really beautiful daffodils and crocuses,” Gorman said.
“Our business office continues. It won’t be a drop-in location, though,” she continued. “We’ll be doing a lot of phone stuff and we’ll probably be meeting people in their homes or in the restaurant down the street. It’s the old-fashioned model of meeting with people where you can in the community.”
According to Gorman, sustained funding has been a big hurdle for the VRC to overcome. The organization obtained its nonprofit status last year, something the board felt had prevented the VRC from winning several grants previously.
But despite achieving independent nonprofit status, several potential grants fell through.
“Veterans are not on most foundation lists as a category,” Gorman explained. “And I think there is still this belief out there that the government takes care of veterans. It’s not true. Even the government — the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration and the Oval Office — are now pleading for communities to step up to the plate and take care of local veterans.”
Government funding, said Gorman, is channeled through other state and local government agencies. In the current economy, even government-funded programs are feeling the pinch. Local organizations like the VRC must do their own fundraising. Overcoming the misconception that it receives governments funds because it services veterans has been harder than board members expected.
Establishing a support base through pledges and ongoing contributions has been a challenge.
“Even if everything is done free by volunteers, there are still costs. In our case, it was rent,” said Perry McClellan, Gorman’s husband and VRC cofounder. “Every organization that does anything has that basic problem of sustenance.”
“We did get some money that was donated that allowed us to go this long, but what we weren’t able to do was to get the pledges to get ongoing income in our budget so that we could continue to make commitments — to lease, for example,” Gorman said. “How can we do a budget, how can we do a three-year lease when we don’t know what our income is, what our pledges are?”
“We didn’t want to open a resale store or a restaurant or a bar or a bingo operation — all of them money-making things that support existing organizations,” McClellan added. “We didn’t have a large enough base to be able to do that and so we’re going to make do with less.”
According to Gorman, the VRC operated on approximately $2,000 per month, sometimes more if there was special programming. Most of that money went into maintaining the facility.
When they were asked to sign a three-year lease, Gorman said board members decided to close the community center to focus on the heart of what the VRC does — information and referral and veterans advocacy. Establishing a solid base of support in order to add key personnel will be critical to the VRC’s future.
“We need a volunteer coordinator, a director and someone to do all the administrative stuff. We really need those three paid positions to move this along at the level that it’s worthy of,” Gorman said. “This is a worthy cause to help carry the burden by the community for our veterans.”
Gorman said she wished they had been able to generate the pledges needed to keep the activity center’s doors open. The number of ongoing pledges needed to generate that support was surprisingly low.
“If there were 200 people who paid $10 a month on a pledge basis to the VRC, or whatever the organization that helps veterans, that would be in their consciousness something they’re doing to help carry the burden,” she said.
“People think it takes so much money. It doesn’t take that much money,” said McClellan. “It takes a great deal of nurturing to get volunteers. “
But more than that, said McClellan, is the daily grind of running a nonprofit center: Creating an idea, bringing people in, telling them what to do, when to do it, helping them do it, cleaning up afterward and moving on to plan the next event. It’s a scenario that must be played out month after month if they are to succeed.
“That’s what makes a community center work, for it to keep going until it starts to roll on its own,” he continued. “It takes a lot more to do that than what our small group could manage to do in a year’s time.”
While the community center will be gone — unless a locale with enough space can be rented or is donated — board members are hoping to have a new office, and just an office, by March. Donations and pledges will continue to be accepted as the VRC works to build the base of support it needs to remain a viable service to Whidbey Island veterans.
Despite the move to scale back, Gorman said the 18 months at its Freeland location have been a success.
“We think we have succeeded, basically. We feel good about our programs,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of Vietnam veterans stepping forward, even World War II veterans who have never sought claims for disability. We’re working with and partnering with charter service organizations like the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. So we feel like we’ve succeeded immensely.”
“It’s not up to us anymore,” added McClellan. “This is bigger than us. It’s really something that’s going to have to be answered by that larger ‘we.’ Right now we’re just having to pull in. We can only do what we can do.”
Kathy Reed is the editor of the Whidbey Crosswind. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611, ext. 5070.