Urban Appalachian Council closes office, lays off employees, merges some programs with other groups

'Powerhouse in the community'

CINCINNATI—Last fall, Shawna Johns kept an important promise she’d made to herself: Earn her Graduation Equivalency Diploma, or GED, before she turned 40.

It wasn’t easy. She was caring for her fiancée, who is battling Stage 3 lung cancer, and her 18-year-old daughter, who is struggling with medical problems of her own.

But with help from the staff of the Urban Appalachian Council (UAC), the Delhi native not only earned her GED, she landed a job with AmeriCorps and began tutoring other adult students at the Adult Education Center in East Price Hill.

But last month, she lost that job at the UAC as the 44-year-old nonprofit began to wind down its operations in Lower and East Price Hill.

“It’s very said,” said Johns, who got the chance to go back to school when the cleaning company she had worked for shut down and left her jobless. “The adults in Price Hill need this. UAC did a lot for the community.”

Though no official announcement has been made, UAC Board President Debbie Zorn confirmed that while the Urban Appalachian Council Corporation still exists, its two biggest programs have been transferred to other neighborhood nonprofit groups and all six full-time staff members were laid off. 

The nonprofit group's federal tax forms from 2008 , 2009 and 2011 show a steady revenue stream of around $1 million every year, but Zorn said finances were a major concern for the nonprofit's board.

“Our funding was shrinking,” Zorn said. “That was a reality we were working with. We considered mergers, we considered partnering with other agencies."

In the end, board members elected to partner with Santa Maria Community Services to absorb its AmeriCorps program, which offers modest pay for adults willing to work in service roles in nonprofits; and with the Lower Price Hill Community School to take over its Adult Basic Education work.

“We frankly think that these are very good fits for maintaining these services,” Zorn said.

History Of Inclusion, Support

UAC started in 1974 as an effort to improve the quality of life of Appalachian migrants who settled in Greater Cincinnati. They were often called the “invisible minority.”  The office was located at 2115 W. Eighth St. 

Cultural programs confronted stereotypes while education and human services programs filled community needs.

“It was a powerhouse in the community,” said Bridget Jackson, who worked as a UAC AmeriCorps member in 2009. “It spread information about Appalachian culture and empowered low-income people in the neighborhood. People looked at UAC as a family network.”

That family provided everything from advocacy at City Hall to education about environmental health concerns to neighborhood Appalachian festivals where multiple generations of neighbors gathered to share their stories.

UAC lobbied to have “Appalachian regional ancestry” included alongside race and gender in the 1992 version of the City’s Human Rights Ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing.

But staff also distributed Christmas gifts to families in need, helped hundreds of neighbors file taxes and complete federal forms, coached clients through healthcare crises and offered programs for young people.

“People are devastated,” said UAC’s former associate director Phyllis Shelton, who worked for UAC for more than 33 years. She said that the organization served more than 600 clients in 2013. “The clients that depend on us are really upset.”

Her first job was at the Appalachian Identity Center in Over-the Rhine, a role she landed as part of a youth employment program before she turned 16.

“I grew up there,” Shelton said. “It helped me personally stay on the right track.”

Throughout her schooling and after graduating with a law degree in 1991, Shelton remained connected to UAC. “I knew what people needed help with,” she said. “That’s why I stayed there.”

Each of the final six full-time employees had worked at UAC for at least 17 years, said Bonnie Hood-Smith, former director of community education for UAC. None had received a raise in more than a decade. Some still qualified for the federal assistance they helped their clients apply for.

“I think it will impact the community greatly,” said Hood-Smith, who begins a new job at Santa Maria Community Services managing the AmeriCorps program on Feb. 17. “I’m broken-hearted that the name has ended, but we will carry on.”

Former Staff, Community Members Upset

Shelton agreed with Zorn that the budget kept the organization “hanging on with a thread,” but said money alone didn’t drive the decision to stop fundraising and divide existing services to other agencies.

UAC had multiple funders, including the United Way, the City of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Public Schools, and two mortgage-free buildings as well as proceeds from a sale of property in Over-the-Rhine as assets.

Early last year, Shelton worked with former contract finance director Bev Furnish to develop a budget that would keep the organization solvent, she said. Neither she nor Zorn, who stepped into the president’s role

last fall, know whether board members saw that budget.

“They just didn’t want to fight,” Shelton said of the board in general. “They didn’t want to keep trying to keep it going.”

Furnish, who had managed UAC’s finances for 28 years, also contracts with other nonprofits, including Housing Opportunities Made Equal, the Corporation for Findlay Market and the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce.

“I feel bad for employees and clients,” Furnish said. “It was just such a shock.”

In mid-December, Board representatives told the staff that they would be laid off in January. For former Human Services Program Coordinator Nancy Laird, the decision still doesn’t make any sense.

“There’s a lot of things we do that nobody does,” she said.

She has spent the last week volunteering to help former clients file taxes and sift through government paperwork. She remains the payee for several former clients whose money she helps manage. She worries about what will happen to those clients when she can no longer afford to volunteer.

“The cracks are wide,” she said.

In East Price Hill, Hood-Smith said while she’s thrilled she can continue to work in the community to support a program she helped build, she’s also disappointed.

“It’s been a horrible roller-coaster ride,” she said, noting that after informing GED students that the Warsaw Avenue center would close Feb. 14, she found out this week that it will, in fact, reopen soon as a branch of Lower Price Hill Community School.

“I think it should have been handled differently,” she said.


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