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SAY comes to WillMar’s rescue

Santa Rosa-based Social Advocates for Youth voted on Wednesday to continue the grief counseling services currently being offered in Sonoma Valley by the WillMar Family Grief Center, which earlier this month announced its pending closure.

The SAY board’s vote was unanimous, according to WillMar acting executive director Jennifer Rochlin. “Our expectation is that the center in Sonoma Valley will stay in the same site and will continue to provide services without interruption.“

Social Advocates for Youth provides crisis intervention, counseling and community support to youth and families at several locations in Sonoma County. It currently has an employment services office in Sonoma, at 1055 Broadway.

Matt Martin, executive director of SAY, confirmed the outline of the arrangement. “We feel that with support from SAY, the WillMar Center will be able to continue offering their grief support services at least through May.”

WillMar’s grief counseling services run in parallel with the school year, and the pending March closure was seen as a particular blow to the young people currently engaged in that counseling. “The important thing is to maintain the services that are happening now through the school year,” said Martin. “We want at the very least to be there for the kids who need it right now.”

The agreement with Socia Advocates for Youth comes at a time when both WillMar’s services and the organization itself seemed doomed. WillMar’s initial announcement gave a March 18 date for ending its programs for grieving children, and the nonprofit had planned to be out of its 583 First St. W. location by the end of that month. Grief counseling services will continue to operate in the same location if new lease terms can be met.

The last-minute agreement salvages the current programs, but it does not change the fate of the 15-year-old Sonoma nonprofit: The WillMar Family Grief and Healing Center will cease functioning as an independent nonprofit. If the two nonprofits reach an agreement in the coming months, WillMar’s remaining assets will be folded into Social Advocates for Youth.

For most of its life, WillMar has been operating out of a two-part, two-story bungalow on First Street West. The organization had already downsized to half its original space, but reduced grant income led the current WillMar board of directors to vote to close earlier this year.

For several weeks following the 5-1 vote, WillMar reached out to those most closely involved with the organization to explain the situation. “It was very important to all of us to have face-to-face conversations with the families and the volunteers,” said Rochlin. We felt it would have been more devastating to read this kind of news in the newspaper rather than hear it from us.”

It’s been a rough year for WillMar, and several factors apparently led to its dissolution. WillMar’s announcement of its closure cited “diminished charitable donations in general, major donor fatigue, a proliferation of competing fundraising events, and the increasingly competitive nature of grant awards.”

Perhaps the single most significant factor was the withdrawal of major donor, William Hearst III, former publisher of the San Francisco Examiner. Hearst was a friend of WillMar’s founder Nina Gorbach, and a founding board member himself, with a personal interest in the WillMar mission. He contributed some $90,000 each year to the organization – until the end of 2013, when his donations ceased.

“That man donated a lot of money to WillMar Center over the years, and I know that everyone was very grateful to him,” said former WillMar executive director Barbara Cullen. “He was a very good friend to WillMar.”

An inquiry to Hearst via email has not been answered, but some WillMar watchdogs say the reason given by WillMar of “major donor fatigue” referred not merely to general malaise but, literally, to a “major donor,” Will Hearst.

Indeed, several former associates of WillMar contacted for this article suggested it wasn’t donor fatigue, but “board fatigue,” that led to WillMar’s troubles. Several board members are on other boards, and conflicting loyalties, intentional or otherwise, could sap a board member’s commitment.

There also seemed to be board attrition, perhaps further evidence of “fatigue.” At the end of 2012, according to the nonprofit’s tax records, there were 12 board members, eight directors and four officers. The board that voted to shutter WillMar had only six members, doubling up as officers.

None of the current board members were available for comment for this article.

“Most boards understand it’s a bit precarious to be so reliant on single-source funding,” said former executive director Tim Boeve. “You need some diversified fundraising. And the board has to be as committed to the staff as fundraising.”

There has always been community support, Cullen said. “But not the kind of support we needed.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle: there are more than 100 nonprofits in the Sonoma Valley, and the population is about 40,000. That’s a lot of open hands, and not nearly enough handouts.

(Hearst) contributed some $90,000 each year to the organization – until the end of 2013, when his donations ceased.

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