AUGUSTA – After struggling to recruit and retain an executive director, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Kennebec Valley has closed its office in Augusta and a Rockland-based organization is seeking to take its place, group officials said Thursday.

Until Big Brothers Big Sisters of Midcoast Maine gets national approval to serve Kennebec and Somerset counties, matches between at-risk children and their mentors will not be supported by the organization, and school-based programs in Augusta and Skowhegan will be delayed.

The transition is likely to take several months, but staff and board members say that once it is complete, Big Brothers Big Sisters will be stronger in the capital area.

Alex Gaeth, CEO of the Midcoast agency, said his organization will at least maintain and hopefully increase the number of matches in Kennebec and Somerset counties, which was 74 last year.

Gaeth said, “Provided that we can continue to get great support from the community partners that we’re hearing already and seeing, we’d love to grow it.”

Last year, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Midcoast Maine expanded to Penobscot County, where the previous affiliate had closed. Now about 100 children are matched with teen or adult mentors in the Bangor area.

Big Brothers Big Sisters spokeswoman Kelly Williams confirmed that the Kennebec Valley agency was disaffiliated in May.

Laura Hudson, a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kennebec Valley, said the 30-year-old organization didn’t have the economies of scale that the Midcoast agency can offer.

“We had great board members, and we were always able to make ends meet, but we were always wishing that we could make the organization stronger and larger,” Hudson said.

The organization had a budget of about $180,000 a year for three full-time employees and a part-time office manager.

Hudson said that in the decade since she joined the board, it has had three executive directors. The job encompassed a broad range of duties, and the board wasn’t able to offer competitive compensation.

The last director was dismissed in 2010 at the end of a six-month probationary period. The board’s most recent choice for the job withdrew because of an illness in the family.

Bob Verrill has run operations as interim executive director for most of the past three years, after coming on board to help with fundraising in June 2009. He said he could not commit to the job on a long-term basis because he spends part of the year caring for his mother in Florida.

When the Kennebec Valley agency ran up against a deadline from the national organization for hiring an executive director, the board considered continuing mentoring programs as an independent entity, unaffiliated with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Verrill said.

Then the Midcoast agency stepped forward. In the past few months, Gaeth and his staff have worked with Kennebec Valley staff and board members to assess needs in the area, meet with major funders and create a plan to submit to the Big Brothers Big Sisters national.

Before the Midcoast organization can resume staff-supported services in Kennebec and Somerset counties, it will have to create a multi-year strategic business plan to demonstrate financial sustainability, Williams said.

About $125,000 of the Kennebec Valley agency’s funding came from golf and bowling fundraisers. Nearly $50,000 came from the United Way agencies of Kennebec Valley and Mid Maine, and the rest came from individual donors or corporate partners such as Delta Ambulance, G&E Roofing Co., Kennebec Savings Bank and Macdonald Page & Co.

Verrill said Golf for Kids Sake will go on as planned on Sept. 7 in Belgrade Lakes, and proceeds will help pay for the transition. Bowl for Kids Sake will be held again in the spring.

Gaeth said the process typically takes 12 to 18 months, but for Penobscot County it was only six months. And in that case, there was no existing organization to assist the Midcoast staff in their planning.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Midcoast Maine has a budget of $360,000, six employees and 560 children matched with mentors in Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot and Waldo counties.

The staff and volunteers moved most of the furniture and storage equipment out of the Big Brothers Big Sisters office in Augusta on Thursday. Some items were put in storage and the rest were taken to Rockland. Gaeth said a new office will be set up in Augusta.

He hopes that school-based programs will restart in the 2012-13 school year and said his agency looks forward to serving all children and adults matched by Kennebec Valley.

“Those matches that they previously had can contact us, and we’ll be looking at having them continue to stay involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters,” he said.

Verrill said there is every reason to believe that the national organization will approve Midcoast’s plan to take over.

“The national already knows they can do it,” Verrill said. “They’ve already justified that they can sustain the Bangor area in addition to what they had before.”

Some board members of the Kennebec Valley agency will be added to the Midcoast board, and Hudson said she and others are eager to stay involved.

“I got involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters because I was empty-nesting about 10 years ago,” she said. “I did it because I was a foster child. I knew that healthy mentors for kids in risky environments is important.”

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

[email protected]