State’s Big Brothers Big Sisters suffers amid economic downturn

TUPELO – Everyone has felt the pinch of the recession, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mississippi is no exception.
Since July, the agency has had to close offices throughout the state, lay off employees and terminate hundreds of mentoring relationships.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mississippi gets funding from state and federal agencies, as well as from United Way, but relies on donations from the community. The program simply didn’t get enough donations this year, said Joel Waters, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mississippi.
“We did lose one large grant from this past year to this year, but we really fell short in our donations,” he said. “We probably raised half of what we thought we would raise.”
Every Big Brothers Big Sisters office in Mississippi closed except the offices in Tupelo, Jackson, Rankin and Hattiesburg, he said.
“If you want to continue the mission, you’ve got to make some business decisions,” he said.
Before the budget cut, Michelle Rouse was over the north Mississippi offices of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and she oversaw specialists – those who make Big-Little matches – in Tupelo, Fulton, Oxford and Starkville.
The Oxford and Starkville offices are now closed, and the Fulton and Tupelo offices merged. That move cut four specialists and terminated hundreds of relationships. The Oxford office alone matched more than 200 children with mentors, Rouse said.
Now, Rouse said, she oversees the two specialists in Tupelo and the remaining specialists in the state.
Last year, the Tupelo-Fulton offices paired about 250 children with mentors.
“We’ll still serve over 200 kids” this year, she said. “We’re doing all we can to keep our quality up.”
Rouse said she has seen a drop in donations on a local level, just as the state office has seen a drop statewide.
“People who gave me $1,000 in the past have told me they can only give $500 this year,” she said. “It’s a hard financial time for everybody, and we know that.”
She noted that despite the drop in donations, there are still plenty of volunteers and folks who’d like to be “Big” mentors.
Many grants come with stipulations that they can be spent only on certain things, but donations can be used any way they’re needed. The agency needs more unrestricted funds like that, she said.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mississippi is cutting costs by using any and all types of donations, especially office materials, and by combining mileage. Rouse is currently seeking office space for the Tupelo office.
Neither Rouse nor Waters said they had seen a jump in fundraising since the beginning of their fiscal year, but both remain hopeful.

Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal