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Published: Monday, 9/3/2001 - Updated: 1 year ago

S. Toledo facility hopes spotlight illuminates woes

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

If President Bush really wants to see smiles during his visit to a South Toledo neighborhood center, he might want to bring his checkbook - or at least make sure Gov. Bob Taft does.

Mr. Bush and Mexico President Vicente Fox are scheduled to stop at the Aurora Gonzalez Community and Family Resource Center as part of their Toledo visit Thursday. Governor Taft is expected to join them.

Their stop offers the greatest visibility the 21-year-old center has ever enjoyed.

But it occurs during the center's biggest financial crisis in years.

Center officials, lawmakers, and Toledo Public School officials have been lobbying the state for the return of at least some of the cash - with no luck. The situation has frustrated people such as Joann Vanderpool, a member and treasurer of the center's board of directors.

“We cannot, absolutely cannot, throw away our children,” she said.

In the meantime, the center has laid off one employee and cut the pay of the other 14 workers. That includes center Executive Director Cyndy Meacham, whose $30,000 salary was cut $5,000.

Center advocates view the presidential visit as a chance to directly press flesh with those who control the purse strings.

Most said they welcome the visit, even if the dignitaries do not immediately offer any cash. After all, they said, the notoriety may help raise funds eventually.

But others, such as state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), want the crisis resolved this week.

“They shouldn't let [Mr.] Bush in the door unless he has a check in hand,” she said.

Bennetta Stovall knows where she would be without the resource center: At home alone, reading a book, with her two cats - and hungrier.

The 73-year-old credits the center with helping her get $20 a month from the federal government to buy fruit and vegetables.

“So much is expensive. And [before the program] I hadn't been eating like I should have been,” she said sheepishly.

For food for thought, she goes twice a week to see other seniors at the center, just off South Avenue near the Anthony Wayne Trail. They play games, watch movies, and take trips.

She is not Hispanic; in fact, only about a third of the center's clients are.

But the center owes its beginnings to the Hispanic migration to the Old South End.

In the late 1970s, the city wanted to build the community center near Libbey High School, but Hispanic activist Aurora Gonzalez pressured them to build it closer to South Toledo neighborhoods where many Hispanics lived.

City officials eventually built it where Miss Gonzalez wanted it - an area that in 1980 had 15 percent Hispanic residents. At the time, that was five times the rate of Hispanics across the city.

It opened in 1980 with a senior nutrition clinic, a health clinic, and recreational programs. The facility was originally given a Spanish name - Centro Unico - meaning “unique center.”

In 1992, to honor Miss Gonzalez after her death, city officials renamed the building after her.

Neighborhood residents elected their own board in 1996 to take over center operations from the city - naming the new organization after Miss Gonzalez as well.

In two decades, the Hispanic population in nearby neighborhoods jumped 30 percent. It was part of a 61 percent boost in Hispanics citywide - the biggest of any ethnic group. Hispanics now make up 22 percent of the population around the center, and 5 percent of the Toledo population.

For years, the center operated in cramped space. When the Boys and Girls Club moved into half of the building in 1983, that left seniors folding up their tables and chairs every day to make way for the children.

Center officials had to work out of the old No. 9 Fire Station on Broadway Street until a $500,000 addition to the center could be built in 1997.

Still, it wasn't enough space. In July, 2000, the board took over part of the old Broadway United Methodist Church. Under the deal, they received free rent but had to pay for utilities and upkeep.

By then, the center had dramatically expanded its services to 17 programs, ranging from parenting classes to a food bank, with a total of 3,500 clients a year. Eight of the programs were geared to youth.

The center has enjoyed success stories, such as Mary Johnson.

The single mother of three, who's also raising two grandchildren, was laid off in January.

She went to the center with no job, no food, no money, and no way to get a sick grandchild to the doctor.

Center workers gave her food, arranged for rides to the doctor, and saw that she received regular child-support payments from the fathers of the grandchildren.

“They basically took over,” Ms. Johnson said. “It brings tears to my eyes when I think about what they did for me. So I wanted to give something back.”

She volunteered at the church site, answering phones and sorting clothes until she was hired this summer as a staff member.

In the last two years, the center's stature increased.

In the summer of 2000, Mr. Bush's nephew - George Prescott Bush - visited the center to stump for votes for his uncle.

In May, 2001, the United Way gave the center's board money for the first time.

While it wasn't a lot - $6,021 - center officials said it was a start.

“We thought, `There's no place to go but up,'” Ms. Vanderpool said.

The six-sentence memo arrived on a Friday in mid-July from the Ohio Department of Education. It said the department's budget had been cut. There's no grant money for the center. And there's nothing that can be done.

For four years the center had relied on a grant from the state to provide aid to Toledo Public Schools students. Suspended children spent two days at the center undergoing counseling - not at home or on the streets.

The center also offered Saturday school, after-school tutoring, sports, even a nurse who visited their homes.

But the state legislature had been mired in a struggle with the state Supreme Court over school funding.

The courts insisted there was too much of a disparity between rich and poor school districts; so the legislature boosted the direct spending to the districts.

That left out money for the resource centers such as Aurora, as well as the East Toledo and Scott centers.

The hardest hit was Aurora.

Center officials huddled that night for 41/2 hours over the budget. The following Monday, Ms. Meacham spent nine hours working the phones - ingesting only aspirin and Diet Coke.

Ms. Vanderpool joined Ms. Meacham in the hunt for cash.

“We'd get off the phone. We'd cry. We'd call a person. We'd cry,” she said. “And we prayed.”

One of those calls went to Rep. Fedor, a Toledo Public Schools teacher familiar with the youth program. She could offer little but sympathy.

“We were beginning not only to take baby steps and walk, we were beginning to run,” Ms. Fedor said. “And then they cut us off at the knees.”

Even after cutting their own budget, center officials doubted they could restart the youth programs when school began in late August. Worse yet, they faced the possibility of closing the church because they couldn't afford the utility costs.

But their emotional roller-coaster ride was not over.

About three weeks ago, the rumors began about a presidential visit to Toledo, perhaps to the center.

Then, a week ago, the official word was announced. Not only the President, but Mexico's president and other dignitaries would visit the center.

“First you pinch yourself, and then you sit back, take a deep breath, and thank God,” Ms. Vanderpool said.

Center officials hope the visit by the two presidents will give them the spotlight they desperately need to get funding.

“Perhaps now people will understand what our mission is and why we care so much,” Ms. Vanderpool said.

“And if that happens, Oh my God, thank you Jesus.”



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