News

PlaySpace will lose $100,000 under new plan for grant

By NATALIE MARTIN

Changes in how a community group spends its state-funded grant will result in about $100,000 in cuts to programs at Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS), according to the social service agency.

VYFS announced late last month that the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA), a volunteer group that has been working to reassess how it spends $145,000 in annual funds to tackle teen substance abuse, has chosen to redirect about $100,000 that had funded programs at the VYFS PlaySpace. The funding allowed the center to offer parenting classes, parent coaching, support groups and a comprehensive support program for the highest-risk youth on the island.

The nonprofit expects VARSA will continue to designate as much as $35,000 for PlaySpace programs.

“Thirty-five thousand dollars is a generous grant, but it’s a dramatic change for the agency,” said VYFS executive director Kathleen Johnson, who expects PlaySpace cuts will begin next month.

Johnson said she is disappointed to see the funding gone, but added that she understands the process VARSA recently went through and believes that the group is limited in how it can spend its grant, called the Community Prevention and Wellness Initiative (CPWI) grant.

“The CPWI project has changed its focus over the last three years we’ve been involved with it,” Johnson said in a press release. “Today it is much more about community organizing, and VYFS is a service provider, not a community organizer.”

Johnson added that she believes VYFS and VARSA, which have in the past disagreed publicly over grant spending, are now on better terms.

“It’s not about their side, our side. We’re all stuck in this situation, and I think it’s difficult for everybody,” she said. “I think they worked as hard as they could to try to make it work.”

VARSA, a group of volunteers that oversees two large grants garnered to address Vashon’s high levels of teen drinking and drug use, has been somewhat quiet about their plans. Chair Meri-Michael Collins said the group has been directed by King County, which administers the grant, to not comment to the press until its new plan is formally approved. Late Monday, however, the group issued a statement explaining that its proposed plan “would lead to major changes in prevention strategies and functioning as part of the Community Prevention and Wellness Initiative (CPWI) to reduce youth alcohol and other drug abuse.” According to the press release, the plan includes the elements required by the state and county and focuses on reducing alcohol and drug use and related problems among middle and high schoolers. Collins said the group would give more details after the plan is approved.

“The goal of the CPWI grant has always been to reduce underage substance abuse in 8th and 10th graders,” the statementsreads. “VARSA continues its commitment to reduce the numbers in our Healthy Youth Survey and actions by our youth around drug and alcohol use. Where possible we would like to contract with VYFS to provide services to help us meet these goals.”

After learning the funding would be redirected, VYFS decided to no longer act as VARSA’s fiscal sponsor for the CPWI grant, Johnson said. She said it no longer makes sense for VYFS to spend time administering the complex grant.

“We want to focus on creating sustainable funding for the programs we believe in, so we withdrew,” she said.

The news comes as VARSA is wrapping up a months-long process to reassess how it spends the CPWI grant, a five-year grant funded by the state Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS). VARSA is currently entering the third year of funding, and its other funding source, the federal Drug-Free Communities grant, will end in September, though it could be renewed in the future.

Last year VARSA and VYFS, which in 2012 worked together to garner the CPWI grant, became mired in a dispute over how the funding was spent. Some VARSA leaders claimed the community coalition should have more say in how the funds were being used and that far too much money was going to PlaySpace programs, as opposed to funding a diverse set of prevention programs as required by the grant.

VYFS officials, however, insisted the grant was being spent according to a plan created by the two groups when it was first garnered. Jackie Berganio, a county official who helps manage the grant, later agreed, saying the grant funds were being expended according to the plan and there had been no financial wrongdoing. She suggested the dispute could have been caused by changes in leadership and miscommunication.

The county ultimately ordered the two groups to work together on new communication and conflict management plans or risk losing the grant. At the same time, the county asked VARSA to formally reassess how the CPWI grant is spent, forming a subcommittee of volunteers that would dedicate countless hours to examining the group’s role on Vashon and updating its action plan.

Berganio declined to comment on the details of the plan VARSA recently put forward, but said all four of the county’s CPWI coalitions are required to update their plans periodically and that VARSA’s proposed plan “seems very balanced.”

“We’re excited to finish this review and give feedback to the coalition,” she said.

The VARSA coalition has freedom to decide how the CPWI funding is spent, but must work within some parameters laid out by the county. For instance, some funding must go toward specific items such as a specialist in the schools, a public awareness campaign and environmental strategies. Some funding can support direct services such as those provided at the PlaySpace, Berganio said, but at least 60 percent of those services must be those considered by DSHS to be proven effective at reducing teen substance use.

Berganio said CPWI aims to create programs that can be sustained after the grant ends and ultimately aims to see declines in the self-reported use of drugs and alcohol by middle schoolers and high schoolers.

“We’re trying to make sure that the focus is still on children and youth,” Berganio said. “Parents are part of it, but we want to ensure that the whole model is addressed.”

Berganio didn’t say whether the county would approve a plan that continued to heavily fund PlaySpace programs, but she did say the county has worked closely with the VARSA subcommittee, a diverse group of volunteers headed by islanders Chuck vanNorman and Tracie Mach, to create the new plan.

“This isn’t a services grant,” she said. “It’s a five-year grant to demonstrate change in underage drinking that was just merely funding services.”

As news of VARSA’s new plan came to light, so did news that a few key VARSA volunteers are apparently leaving the group, though it’s not yet clear why. VARSA co-chair Diane Kjellberg and coalitions members Larry Kjellberg and Robin Blair all recently resigned. The Kjellbergs declined to comment on their resignations, and Blair said she is currently in mediation with VARSA.

At VYFS, Lori Means, director of the PlaySpace and Family Education and Support Services, said that unless alternate funding can be secured by next month, the PlaySpace will lose the equivalent of almost three full-time staff members and the center will be able to continue only a fraction of its programs. In April, Means resigned as the CPWI coordinator, though she declined to say why.

“I think that it’s a great loss to the community to lose the high level and high quality of parenting support that has evolved and is housed at the PlaySpace,” Means said last week.

VYFS plans to cancel most of its parenting classes, including the popular Guiding Good Choices class, and much of its parent coaching, which served about 80 people. It will also cancel school-age parent support groups, which served about 40 people, though it hopes to continue support groups for parents of young children.

Yvonne-Monique Zick, who headed VYFS’s middle and high school parent education program, recently resigned, Means said, as she knew her position would be eliminated. And Delene Rodenberg, who coordinates a suite of services for families of children identified as most at risk, will only be able to serve about half the 20 families she previously worked with, as half of her position will be defunded.

Means said she advocated for VARSA to fund PlaySpace programs but also “tried really hard to allow it to be a group process and not drive it.”

Many of the programs that will soon end have been offered at the PlaySpace for years, previously funded by the state and expanded when Vashon garnered the CPWI grant. Means said that while not all of the PlaySpace programs target middle and high schoolers, many do, and research has shown that family intervention at an early age is most effective at reducing drug and alcohol use later in life.

Johnson agreed, saying she took issue with the CPWI program but not with VARSA.

“We understand there are a lot of prevention activities we could do. … We believe philosophically the best return on your investment is early on in a child’s life,” she said.

Means said she’s already been informing parents of the impending cuts and almost all of them have been “greatly disappointed,” she said.

“These services are readily available off-island at many different agencies, but this is the only place on the island,” Means said.

VYFS is now looking for funding to continue PlaySpace programs, perhaps from private grants, foundations and individual donation, Johnson said. However, the type of funding needed, considered prevention funding, is getting harder and harder to come by, she said.

“It’s just much more difficult to provide funding for prevention services … but we’re hopeful,” Johnson said.

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