Facing dire financial straits in its 60th year, the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center continues to provide tutoring and enrichment activities for a large cross-section of neighborhood children—the majority of whom have felt the pains of tightening purse strings themselves at home.
Recently, when Director Michelle Cannon asked a youngster to name his favorite program at the center—with karate and gardening classes, chess and pottery classes, library, even wildlife refuge and museum trips to choose from—the reply shocked Ms. Cannon, bringing her to tears.
“Out of all of that, he said, ‘The food,’ with a big smile on his face,” Ms. Cannon said. “That was eye-opening. I mean, that tells you something. This is where he eats his meals. That is the type of children we take care of here.”
According to Julie Greene, the curator and archivist at the Bridgehampton Historical Society, the center’s creation was inspired by the events of October 26, 1950, when two children were killed in a Sunday blaze at their 12-foot-by-18-foot home. The children, Katie Lou Jenkens, 3, and Walter Jenkens, 2, shared the home with their parents and nine siblings, sleeping on potato sacks for bedding. The family was from New Jersey and were working as migrant potato pickers.
The deaths weighed on the mind of Dorothy Hamilton Brush, the widow of a wealthy electrical engineer from Cincinnati, Ohio, who summered in Bridgehampton, prompting her to donate the startup money for the center in August 1953. It became the first-ever non-profit community center in the nation.
Ms. Brush knew tragedy herself: Her husband, Charles, died from complications while serving as an organ donor for his daughter, who also died only months later.
It was out of these hardships, and many financial problems that the center faced throughout the years, that its current resiliency was born, Ms. Cannon said.
“We started by taking care of the children of migrant workers,” she said. “The center was, and is, a safe haven for kids, regardless of what it takes.”
The center hosts a variety of programs geared toward lower-income families, while staying true to its roots in child care. Starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 6:30 p.m. every weekday, the center is home and school in one to about 85 kids: 30 in its after-school program, 45 in the Head Start program, and 10 in the teen program.
“I know my clientele is working until at least 5 or 5:30,” Ms. Cannon said, referring to the children’s caregivers at home. “We have to feed the kids, get their homework done and do some enrichment with the kids, so that by the time they are home, they are ready to interact with their parents and spend meaningful time with them before bed.”
In addition to its child care aspects, the center runs a food pantry and clothing drive for families in need, provides holiday meals, has donated more than 30 refurbished computers to families, provides transportation to General Educational Development (GED) classes in Deer Park, and even buys Christmas presents for entire families.
“For a lot of the kids, the biggest Christmas they have is here at the center,” Ms. Cannon said. “We’re here for the community in any capacity needed—something as simple as needing to use a fax machine or make copies. Our efforts mean a lot to a lot of people.”
Also as part of their $175,000 yearly operating budget, the six part-time staffers find ways to give away two $1,000 two-year college scholarships to Bridgehampton students, and take nine teenage children on a weekend trip to Columbus, Ohio, to attend the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurial Conference every year, to learn how to network and build a business.
“The trip is really great,” Ms. Cannon said. “They all really take something out of it and seem to enjoy it. If we can only find the funding to get these kids past Riverhead—there is so much out there for them that they don’t yet understand.”
Lastly, the center runs a summer camp for seven weeks that, at about $450, is “the most affordable, best-kept secret for the summer,” according to Ms. Cannon. “And we end up giving out a lot of scholarships. I don’t believe in turning people away. We accept the children into our programs, and then we figure out the financials, not the other way around.”
Even during generous fundraising years, however, all those commitments put a heavy financial strain on the center, which relies on a variety of financing avenues to scrape by.
“The center has almost closed many times, but we’ve always been saved here and there by benefactors—angel investors, like Peter Jennings,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, who was director of the center from 1999 to 2005, when the late newsman was a supporter. “Organizations like this rely on angels, and a lot of times, they need one big, devoted, special guardian angel to survive. When you find one like Peter and lose him, it is just so hard to replace.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said that Mr. Jennings used his passion for jazz, his local roots and his extensive black book of phone numbers to pull together a decade-long summer concert series to benefit the center, uniting jazz legends from separate bands at his house in Bridgehampton each summer.
“It was stable, predictable, backbone funding. But after he passed away in 2005, it all came to a halt, and it has been hard for the center to recover,” she said.
Ms. Throne-Holst said that, in her experience, finding unique revenue streams outside of the $125,000 Bridgehampton School District budget line was always a challenge—a thought seconded by Ms. Cannon.
But this year has been particularly tough on the center, where a convergence of misfortunes has left it hamstrung to the tune of about $75,000 in lost funding for 2013.
In addition to a lack of angel benefactors and a generally hard market for non-profit donations, the center was unable to secure a local golf course this past summer to hold its annual golf benefit, and at this time there are no plans to reschedule a holiday choir concert, traditionally a big hit for the center, that was scheduled for December 15 but then canceled.
More devastating for Ms. Cannon and the center is the loss of rent from the federal Head Start program, which is housed on the property. When the federal sequester hit, the preschool program was defunded for the year, and the previously stable revenue from Head Start will be a financial albatross until 2014.
“When the people at Head Start asked if they could stay rent-free, because they had no funding—well, what was I going to do?” Ms. Cannon asked. “‘Of course you can stay,’ I said. Their lost rent and extra costs, though, is a big part of our issue.”
“For those who have lived and breathed the world of social programs, we are aware that the cost of running these programs, regardless of funding, is dwarfed by the cost of not running the programs,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “They are needed. I can’t quantify how much they are needed, but I am cognizant of the need. If you care about this community and the next generation, supporting this center should be high on your list, and from a personal standpoint, I would call on anyone in the community to help keep the center strong.”
Ms. Cannon, for her part, remains optimistic about the center’s future. But even she is uneasy at the loss of revenue coupled with the rising need for services.
“If we don’t raise $50,000 by the end of this year, we’ll have to scale back our programs,” she said. “And that would diminish the lives of many, many local children and their families. Hopefully, we will continue to identify where there is a need, and fill it.”