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'Domino Effect' Leads To Closure Of Long-Time Charlotte Nonprofit

CCSJ alumni (L to R) Ezelle Sanford, Nicholas Bazelle and Mark Hatcher.

The Mecklenburg County budget process was long and painful. The list of cuts commissioners made to cover an $80 million shortfall goes on for pages and includes numerous nonprofits that had their funding reduced - or eliminated entirely. Thus far all but one of those nonprofits has managed to survive, despite the cuts. WFAE's Julie Rose reports on the impending closure of a nonprofit that's been in town for 60 years, the Charlotte Coalition for Social Justice. In what seemed like such an inconsequential little vote during the county budget deliberations, the commission swiftly cut $68,000 that had been earmarked for the Charlotte Coalition for Social Justice. CCSJ planned to use that money for its diversity programs: teaching teenagers how to prevent bullying, combat racism and be more welcoming to kids who are different. "All good things," says Commission Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts. "But they aren't - when it comes to life and death - they're just not as high a priority." Roberts says the commissioned hoped to restore CCSJ's funding when the economy improved. "I did not know that would lead to them closing their doors," says Roberts. CCSJ executive director Nyala Hunt says there was a "domino effect." "It's not the loss of one revenue stream," says Hunt. "It's the knock-on effect of loss of streams across the board." When the county pulled its funds, the United Way of Central Carolinas cancelled the $81,000 grant it had promised to CCSJ. United Way Executive Director Jane McIntyre says that was mainly because Nyala Hunt said CCSJ was in trouble. "(She's) been very honest with our volunteers and staff that if they, in fact, lost the county funding they would not be able to keep their doors open," says McIntyre. "And it would not be appropriate to be the sole funding source." Hunt says that's not exactly what she meant. But her commitment to being upfront about the situation may have backfired. "I really thought that having been a United Way agency for probably 15 years and having made valuable contribution to this community, that there would be some help from United Way to help us get through this transition," says Hunt. If United Way had reduced its funding rather than cutting it entirely, Hunt says CCSJ may have been able to keep a skeleton crew and buy time to restructure or arrange a merger. Instead, CCSJ lost nearly half of its $350,000 annual budget in the span of a month. The nonprofit's board had been worried for several years about relying too heavily on the county and United Way, but weren't able to fix the problem before the recession hit. After the county and United Way dominoes fell, other major donors like Bank of America pulled their grants. "Once a nonprofit starts to become unsustainable, you're really dependent on someone galloping in on a white, black or bay horse and saving the day," says Hunt. The savior will have to come by August 15 - the day CCSJ will lay off its last two employees and close its doors. "Anytown" is the nonprofit's last hurrah. It's a weeklong leadership camp for 60 teenagers going on right now at a retreat near Greensboro. 20-year old Ezelle Sanford went to Anytown for years and is back from college to be a camp counselor this summer. "It helped me to learn about my identity in terms of sexual orientation," says Sanford. Before he went to Anytown, Sanford says he wasn't comfortable accepting that he was gay. "Anytown just really helped me to grow as a person," says Sanford. It also made him an activist for social justice issues and landed him a college scholarship. Many of the thousand or so kids who participate in CCSJ's leadership and diversity workshops each year share similar stories. Late last week, Sanford and a handful of other kids gathered at CCSJ's office to make final preparations for Anytown. The last Anytown. That hadn't really sunk in for them. Nyala Hunt isn't bitter. But she's also not ready to accept defeat. She's no longer on the CCSJ payroll, but she and the board are committed to finding another nonprofit, a church, or some benevolent donor willing to take on Anytown and CCSJ's other projects. "We don't mind if it's not called CCSJ, as long as the work continues," says Hunt. "As long as the programs continue."