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Carolinas Literacy Network to shut down

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By Reece Murphy

Carolinas Literacy Network, a local nonprofit tasked with helping promote literacy in Lancaster and surrounding counties, is closing its doors within the next two months due to lack of funding.

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Located at 105 W. Dunlap St. in Lancaster, CLN has served as fiduciary and coordinating support agency for area literacy programs since its establishment by the J. Marion Sims Foundation in 2006 as Lancaster Area Literacy Cooperative.

Since January 2013, the organization also served as coordinating agency for Lancaster Works, the county’s work ready communities initiative. It recently began partnering with York Technical College to offer advanced manufacturing certification classes.

Carolinas Literacy Network Executive Director Kathy Wilds said last week the organization will formally begin shutting down after wrapping up the latest round of work-ready and advanced manufacturing classes.

“When we complete our current obligation to funders regarding Lancaster Works, and all of that will conclude March the 28th, then we will continue the process to dissolve CLN,” Wilds said.

“Once the training program ends, then we’ll spend the month of April liquidating the other assets. Once all the other liabilities have been settled, we will then disburse those remaining funds to our member agencies and other partners,” she said.

News of CLN’s shutdown comes less than a month after the nonprofit closed its bookstore and began giving away its collection to members of the public and other nonprofits, ostensibly to make room for the advanced manufacturing classes.

The organization has three full-time employees, including Wilds, and two part-time employees, all of whom will lose their jobs.

Wilds said CLN made the decision to close due to a lack of sustainable funding after the loss of grants from major supporters J. Marion Sims Foundation and Bi-Lo Charities.

She said Winn-Dixie dissolved Bi-Lo Charities, which provided funding for Lancaster Works programs, after the company and Bi-Lo merged  last year.

CLN was able to sustain the program and its own operations afterward through the sale of donated property.

Wilds said the J. Marion Sims Foundation did not elaborate in its notification letter on its decision not to renew funding for CLN last year. Wilds conceded it may have been that CLN was moving in a direction with Lancaster Works the foundation did not support.

“It is not uncommon for funders, even your principal funders, to move in a different direction,” Wilds said. “The foundation has been gradually decreasing their support of the literacy initiative for the last two years.

“And while this came as an unexpected response, they are still to be commended for their investment over the years and the work they’ve supported,” she said.

J. Marion Sims Foundation President James Morton said he could not discuss the decision to cut funding for CLN or comment on its relationship with the organization due to its confidentiality policy.

Morton said the foundation is currently having conversations with a number of literacy programs throughout the community that it has previously funded and would publish its grants list soon, possibly in the next two weeks or so.

Morton declined to say if the foundation planned to fund local literacy programs directly or support another fiduciary agency.

“I think you’ll see something about that in the releases,” Morton said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

Continuation of literacy services

In the meantime, several former or current CLN network members will continue to offer local literacy programs ranging from traditional reading programs to family, health and workplace literacy programs, life skills training and English as a second language tutoring.

Wilds said some of those organizations include Grace Place, Community Power House, Youthbuild, Mapps To Success at Carolina Court, Lancaster County Adult Education, the  Alston Wilkes Society, Lifebuilders, Chester County Adult Ed, Lancaster County Library, York Tech and the University of South Carolina Lancaster.

The fate of the Lancaster Works program, which provides under- or unemployed residents with job skills training, isn’t quite as clear.

To date, Lancaster Works has graduated more than 200 residents, and touts a nearly 70 percent job-placement rate since its 2013 startup.

“I’ve had multiple meetings with county leadership, economic development, County Council, the (Lancaster County) Chamber of Commerce,  and while they see the training program as a necessity and see that it has been wildly successful, how to take it over and fund it is the biggest issue,” Wilds said.

“All indications I have to date show that they’re not going to be in a position to do anything or make a decision on it before we close,” she said. “That’s not to say there won’t be a future.”

Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis, who serves on the Lancaster Works board, confirmed the uncertain future of the public-private initiative. Willis said everyone agrees on the program’s benefit, the problem is paying for it.

He said though County Council agreed to help fund the initiative, it declared from the beginning it could not afford to be the sole funding source and would not agree to take the program on itself.

Willis said there are several options under discussion by the Lancaster Works board, including the possibility that the Chamber of Commerce take over as a short term measure or that it be operated by another nonprofit.

But the matter is far from settled.

“By all accounts, the program has been successful,” Willis said. “At this point, we’ve ruled out one option, but there’s several still out there.

“Given the time frame, the program may go into a 30- or 60-day hiatus, but the intent is not to let it go away,” he said.

On a personal level, Wilds said though she’s deeply saddened by CLN’s closing, she’s glad it’s “going out with a bang instead of a whimper” by completing its obligations to Lancaster Works and York Tech, as well as providing some last-minute funding for network members.

Wilds said even though the agency is closing its doors, “the work of literacy” continues and she’s glad CLN was a part of that work.

“I’m proud of the ways in which we have helped our programs secure resources that they’ll continue to use and will help them continue to succeed and provide direct services,” Wilds said. “That was our purpose and I feel like we have done a good job in doing that.

“Seeds have been planted in a variety of different ways and all of that kind of work will continue even though we’re not here,” she said.

 

Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151