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At the Bayside Community Center in Linda Vista, things are humming along as they have since the center was founded in 1932 as a settlement house for families of Italian and Portuguese fishermen. Having moved up the hill from Little Italy, Bayside still programs activities for kids, teens, seniors, people with disabilities, and new immigrants. Bayside’s service community is San Diego’s most diverse: Hmong, Hispanics, Somalis, African-Americans, Mixtec Indians, and whites populate the hill, many living in World War II–era housing projects. The center’s main role is helping recent arrivals who are socially and geographically marginalized. If you visit the refurbished two-story building during the week, you’ll hear the ukulele club strumming Hawaiian tunes or see an old Anglo woman having lunch with an Afghani refugee. Downstairs, you’ll find the sewing class, overseen by a volunteer teacher, who instructs people from a dozen language backgrounds. (Which language does she communicate in? “The language of sewing.”) Saturdays, you’ll find the building overrun with 160 American kids whose Vietnamese parents teach them their language and culture. Sundays, you can’t miss the multicultural Christian group, praising God or painting the building.

Bayside’s vibrancy is only half the story. The large paid and volunteer staff, led by sociologist-turned-director Jorge Riquelme, is facing tough times. While other San Diego social-service nonprofits have closed or stopped programs, Bayside’s staff has taken the brunt of the downturn.

Bayside still receives 70 percent of its $1 million annual budget from traditional sources — federal, county, and city funds, the First Five Commission, and some 2008 stimulus money. These sources are not automatic. Riquelme, at the helm for three years, says that the downturn began in 2004, when money from a San Diego block grant program dried up. His predecessor scrambled, made cuts, quit. Riquelme was hired and put the center on Jenny Craig. To control deficit spending, Riquelme had to deplete the center’s reserves.

The genial Riquelme describes the effect of wielding the hatchet. “I’m 60 pounds overweight, worried, and I don’t sleep much.” The downsizing is “an incredible pressure, the executive director position, very lonely.” For fiscal 2009, he cut payroll by 30 percent and took a pay cut of 20 percent himself, dropping $14K from his 2007–2008 salary of $70,916. For part of 2009, staff members took furloughs. Ten full-time positions are secure, but ten others have been sliced up. Staff have lost jobs, been reassigned, or gone part-time. One works at the same job for no salary, in hopes that a new grant will come through. Another works just to keep her health care. Volunteers take over paid positions. Riquelme’s turned off the air-conditioner, asked his vendors to spread out payments, and begun bartering — exchanging services for payment due. Throughout, he’s cut no programs or services to the community.

Like the staff, Linda Vistans are pitching in. Riquelme asks seniors to kick in a buck for the free-lunch program. A printer donates a drug-awareness brochure. A dance band plays a fundraiser to pay for a senior field trip. A computer instructor, his community-college class canceled, teaches the course for free at Bayside. And as for Linda Vista’s gang problem? Riquelme says, “We get gang members dropping off their kids or picking up Grandma, so they look after us.”

Riquelme’s employees are month-to-month. No job is safe, despite seniority. Rose Ceballos, at Bayside for 33 years, is now associate deputy director. Most of her work has been full-time and paid, but “nothing’s guaranteed,” she says. “There’s always a little 30-day notice that says they can cut it off. That’s just the way it is. I oversee three different programs. I make sure reports are done on time. I supervise.” On furlough for three months in 2009, she hemmed and hawed about coming in on her unpaid days and finally said no, and of course, things backed up.

She changes the subject to others who “couldn’t afford to stay with a 50 percent pay cut.” It’s difficult because “your heart is in what you do.” Is the two-thirds-paid health-care benefit an incentive to stay, even with fewer hours? “I wouldn’t call it an incentive,” she says. “It’s decent. I’m paying quite a bit because I’m older.” Still, she works in nonprofit, fat years and lean, because of her “passion and not because I’m making big bucks.”

Hardest Hit Are the People We Serve

The current story of San Diego nonprofits is the story of a select few of the 11,000 groups in our community, all of which are doing less with less. None of the social-service agencies is immune from the recessionary flu. One of the largest is SAY San Diego, Social Advocates for Youth. The 38-year-old organization is run by executive director Michael Carr, who with Ellen Yaffa, director of development, sat down with me. In a lavender shirt and black-and-yellow tie, Carr says that his clergy background brought him into social work in the ’60s; he’s been with SAY for 32 years, 30 years as director. The organization was started by law students in the 1960s who advocated for youth (and families) who’d been swallowed up by the juvenile justice system. No kid should be thrown away; that was the philosophy. It still applies. Carr and Yaffa and a staff of 500, half dispersed throughout the city in after-school programs, plus 140 ongoing volunteers, help parents who want to help their children succeed in school.

SAY is and is not a government program, a private nonprofit that gets the majority of its annual $18 million budget from the county, with whom it contracts to provide services. One reason the county contracts for “delinquency prevention” is that locking up kids — those skipping school, taking drugs, joining gangs — is expensive and behaviorally ineffective. Carr says that traditional intervention “had the opposite effect [of what] we wanted: It made them more criminal, not less.” Schools aren’t equipped to deal with delinquency. Agencies can. But only in concert with a society-wide plan that addresses root causes.

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