An Orange County commission that funds children's programs is being squeezed at both ends these days, getting less state money to fund projects while its beneficiaries are pleading for financial help.
The quandary is surfacing just as community programs are queuing up for the spring disbursal of grants, forcing commission officials to be especially prudent when doling out funds this year.
"We need to be very careful in how [the money] is spent so the needs of children are met," said Kelly Pijl, spokeswoman for the Children and Families Commission of Orange County.
The commission was created two years ago by state legislators after the 1998 passage of Proposition 10, the California Children and Families First Act. The initiative collects a 50-cent per pack surtax on cigarettes and increased taxes on other tobacco products to fund development programs for children 5 and younger.
The bulk of the funds are distributed among California's 58 counties, based on birth rate. Orange County receives the second-highest allocation, about $40 million, which is disbursed by the commission.
If state legislators adopt a $1.10 increase in the tobacco tax, as proposed by Gov. Gray Davis, commission officials say tobacco consumption will probably decline, decreasing the funds earmarked for children's programs. Additionally, the commission predicts a 3% drop in revenue because of a decline in the number of smokers.
Since February 2000, the commission has helped more than 160 programs in Orange County deal with obesity, early literacy, mental health, affordable housing, homelessness, and school readiness.
The commission is accepting applications through April 3 for another round of quarterly grants, ranging from $25,000 to $75,000, to fund development or expansion of programs that address early child development.
Pijl said she expects more applicants because state-funded children's programs are being pinched by the state's budget crisis.
Among those that benefit from the grants is the Boys & Girls Club of Garden Grove, which sought the commission's help in developing a program to prepare children for school.
"Without the commission's funding and technical assistance, we'd still be struggling on our own to find the answers to how to get kids ready for school," said Pat Halberstadt, the club's director.
With $150,000 in grants, the club helps preschoolers learn colors and shapes, and even how to sit still.
"We're trying to give them a lot of the things kindergarten teachers are saying they're not seeing. They have to spend a lot of time trying to get kids ready to learn; we're trying to equip them before they get there," Halberstadt said.
Another organization, which assists parents of children with Down syndrome, has received $175,000 from the commission to reach the Spanish-speaking community with a quarterly newsletter and provide programs and resources.
"The commission has allowed us to go from an organization that met sporadically in people's homes to a permanent office with a library and staff," said Jan Wagner, executive director of the group Parents Regional Outreach for Understanding Down Syndrome.
Among other organizations that received financial help through the commission last year: the Orangewood Children's Foundation, $648,297; Catholic Charities of Orange County, $550,000; and the Jewish Community Center for Early Childhood, which received $325,000.
The Family Support Network, a commission beneficiary based in Santa Ana, fans out to provide free vision, hearing, speech and mental health screenings for young children.
"Because of Prop. 10, we've been able to add specialists, which gets more children through more quickly and easier," said project administrator Donna Wallis, whose organization will be applying for funding this cycle and has received more than $400,000 from the commission. "We can keep these programs going with the help of the commission."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The Children and Families Commission of Orange County is seeking new and renewed proposals for grant funding. Shown are the programs awarded the most funding last year:
Top 12 programs in 2002*
Program & Amount
Orangewood Children's Foundation: $648,297
Catholic Charities of Orange County: $550,000
Shelter & Hunger Partnership of O.C.: $509,550
Orange County Child Abuse Prevention Center Inc. & Orange County Health Care Agency/Community Public Health Nursing: $503,233
Maternal Outreach Management Systems: $484,136
Saddleback Valley Unified School District: $400,000
Centralia School District: $400,000
Capistrano Unified School District: $325,000
Jewish Community Center for Early Childhood: $325,000
Kinship Center: $308,470
YMCA of Orange County: $300,000
The Cambodian Family: $300,000
*Based on the amount funded in the competitive program grant cycle
Source: Children and Families Commission of Orange County
Researched by Times staff writer Errin Haines