Weighing Tough YWCA Options

Jan Hester found herself with one tough job when she started in early July as executive director of the YWCA of North Orange County.

Her first task was to get the gas turned back on in the organization's temporary shelter for women. The residents had been taking cold showers for weeks.

Hester's next duty was begging Southern California Edison Co. to keep the lights on.

Then she had to find a way to pay the YWCA's 17 employees--an immediate $12,500 bill.

Many challenges remain, as the organization, which has been serving the needs of women and children since 1928, struggles with a financial crisis. The YWCA strains to pay its employees every two weeks, has gone through its reserve funds and has accumulated more than $230,000 in debt, including a $105,000 mortgage.

"I want to know how this happened," said Hester, a longtime Fullerton counselor as well as former administrator and board member with the Fullerton School District. "Now we have to do something drastically different."

The YWCA's financial problems intensified in recent years with cuts in government grants and private donations, according to Carol Sipple, who joined the organization 17 years ago as its accountant and now runs its breast cancer awareness program, Encore Plus.

As time went on, the YWCA's programs could not pay for themselves, Sipple said, and the administration had to subsidize operations from the reserve, eventually dwindling its own funds.

The agency's income consists mainly of dues, money from the United Way and fund-raising proceeds. The YWCA spends more than $300,000 a year on salaries, taxes and insurance. Other expenses include maintenance and supplies.

Hester and board President Sara Bergstrom called a meeting last week to inform the members of the organization's financial situation and to ask for their help. The board formed a task force, YWCA2000, which will create solutions within the next three months.

Some options discussed included cutting programs like the women's shelter, which is home to eight battered women, or child development center, which provides free to low-cost care for 24 children. Another option is selling the headquarters at 321 N. Pomona Ave. in Fullerton and relocating.

Shutting down the YWCA completely is not an option, Hester said.

Janine Ingram, executive director at the YWCA of Central Orange County, said it is common for nonprofit organizations to find themselves in financial trouble.

"It's just a critical point in their growth," she said.

The members are optimistic that the YWCA will return to its former vibrant state. "The YWCA has been a well-kept secret in the community," said Holly Harris, director of the women's residence. "But we are going to remind them we're here."

It might take the help of more younger members, it could take some juggling of programs, and it will definitely mean hard work, but Hester said she can see a brighter future.

"There's a certain serendipity to all of this," Hester said. "I just feel there are all sorts of options."

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