On Deadline: 'Free at Last' survival struggle blends dedication with new hope | September 9, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 9, 2011

On Deadline: 'Free at Last' survival struggle blends dedication with new hope

by Jay Thorwaldson

Financially strapped Free at Last, the nonprofit organization that serves scores of persons teetering on the brink of their futures in the Midpeninsula, has been surviving on a smaller staff and the dedication of paid and volunteer staff members.

Beyond the east-of-Bayshore communities it primarily serves, the organization is best known as being co-founded 17-years ago by David Lewis, who was fatally shot June 9 last year at Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo following a confrontation with a man he'd known many years. Lewis received the California Peace Prize in 1995 for his work, and a documentary film project was launched after his death (www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?id=17926).

But within the communities it serves Free at Last is known as a refuge and pathway back for persons who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, so they can go on to lead sober and crime-free lives, a major step for those returning from jail or prison.

"We have no money," co-founder and board Chair Vicki Smothers said when summing up the situation this week, following one report that the organization was about to go out of business entirely.

Not so, or at least not yet.

The hope — Smothers said in an interview during a break from her day job doing mental-health outreach for San Mateo County — emerged in a meeting in July with officials from the Haas Center at Stanford University and Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson of San Mateo County, a former East Palo Alto City Council member.

With assistance from the Haas Center, Free at Last on Aug. 1 began an intensive search for a new executive director to replace interim CEO Gerardo Barragan and made a number of urgent steps to stay afloat and stabilize its finances.

The primary qualification for a new director, in addition to core management abilities and community engagement, is a successful background in fund development and grant-writing, Smothers said. Applications have already started coming in, including a couple of technically qualified individuals from out of state but who lack knowledge of or connections within the communities.

Interviews start next week.

"Right now we're just really hopeful we find the right person," Smothers said.

Even under Lewis, writing grants was not a strength of the organization. His natural dedication and charisma helped in tight corners, along with an inner determination that led him back personally from addictions, crime and prison into becoming a nationally known figure. He was adept at finding pockets of unspent county money and applying it to the needs of those the organization served.

Details of the crisis were outlined in a news story last April on Palo Alto Online, the Weekly's community website (www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?id=20927).

A major meeting of the board of directors was held in June, at which time the question came up about why former sources of funding stopped supporting the program.

It became clear that "our funders never left us — we stopped writing grants," Smothers said. "We didn't have anyone to write grants who was knowledgeable about that." In that sense, Free at Last "has been treading water for the past 10 years," since the departure of earlier executive director Priya Haji in 2002.

Other survival steps include:

• The paid staff has been cut from 30 to about 16, and remaining staff have increased their workloads, in addition to work by "what we call our 'unpaid volunteers,'" Smothers said.

"We have less manpower, but we're still getting the job done and it doesn't look like we'll have to close," she said.

• A "sustainability plan" has been prepared for presentation in mid-September to San Mateo County, a major supporter of the organization for years through contracts for services.

"We need to explain to them how we're going to stay alive," Smothers said, adding that she doesn't expect new county money. Last year the county provided about $634,000 in contracted services, but the group's overall budget (before cutbacks) was about $1 million.

• The church that owns the Free at Last complex at 1796 Bay Road in East Palo Alto waived rent for two months prior to Aug. 1, but has had to resume charging rent, including a prior-contractual 10 percent boost.

• Free at Last is sub-renting some space to the Ravenswood Clinic on a temporary basis.

Earlier, the program began charging fees for some programs, but the economic recession sharply reduced income from that source last year.

Smothers refers repeatedly to the dedication and unpaid time staff members provide, including weekend duties.

"The dedication of people is beyond words," she said. "You can't pay people enough for this kind of work," and the pay was low to start with.

But the continuing crisis and uncertainty has taken a toll on staff morale, which Smothers acknowledged is "very, very low."

There was a real boost in January 2011, when Free at Last celebrated its 17th anniversary. The event drew city officials from East Palo Alto and neighboring communities, as well as longtime friends and supporters. It was a combination memorial to Lewis and a celebration of the success of existing and past clients. Women graduates demonstrated a chanting program they've shared with Narcotics Anonymous and addiction-support groups, and male graduates led a dramatic chanting program of their own. Both were celebrations of their freedom from their pasts and of their futures.

Yet many are at turning points, and uncertainty breeds fear and, sometimes, failure.

Failure has broader implications in cases where someone returns to the streets and a "thug life" of crime, affecting many people.

The various programs operated by the organization presently serve 18 men with interim housing, counseling and support groups, plus 10 women, two with children. There are 25 to 30 individuals in various outpatient-support programs, in addition to up to 100 persons on some days who just drop in for a cup of coffee and a sense of refuge from the world and, perhaps, themselves.

The half-dozen programs include a DUI program, a Spanish-speaking program and services addressing domestic violence, which had become a special interest of Lewis prior to his death. It sponsors two 12-step recovery programs.

The needs of individuals vary widely, and some simply come to the drop-in center.

"Eventually we know they'll catch on," Smothers said. "One woman has been coming in since 1996, and the other day she got clean," she added as an illustration of the importance of continuing presence in the community.

Hope keeps the program going.

"It's like holding our breath until it happens," Smothers said of the dream of financial stability. Despite low morale, staff dedication means "people will be there until we close — but I don't believe we're going to close."

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com or jaythor@well.com.