A Better Chance (ABC) of Wilton made a surprise announcement Monday morning–after 23 years of helping inner-city students access a challenging high school academic setting, the fixture among Wilton non-profits will be eliminating one of its two residential programs.
Citing financial reasons as one motivation, ABC announced in a press release that it will phase out the boys program and consolidate its efforts to support its girls program, “…in a move designed to secure its future sustainability and continuing achievement of its mission.”
According to the release, ABC had been operating at a fiscal deficit for the past several years in order to cover the operational and staffing costs for two separate houses. The organization had begun to use reserve funds to cover those operational costs, despite the community’s generosity toward its fundraising initiatives, including a town wide appeal, a variety of special events and a targeted appeal to underwrite full and partial scholarships.
“In the interest of being the best stewards of the resources that the community has so generously donated, the Board has decided to invest its energy and concentration in the girls’ house,” says ABC Wilton co-president Derrel Mason.
One thing board members don’t want the community to assume, however, is that the organization is struggling financially.
“We are not in financial constraints. ABC is in a good financial position. We have a small endowment. We believe we can raise enough money to run one house in a really high level the way we wanted all along. We have money to sustain us for the next year or more,” says Mason. “But this was really a longterm decision–it was driven in part by the money, but it was also driven in part by the demand.”
What Mason explained is happening as a trend is that there aren’t enough boys applying the A Better Chance National organization and being funneled to the community programs.
“ABC is primarily a boarding school program–95% of the kids go to boarding schools through ABC. The community programs were sort of an add-on back in the day when there weren’t enough spots in the boarding schools, but now, there’s more spots in boarding schools, and there’s also programs that compete with ABC–Boys First and some other inner city programs that take boys and also do what ABC did. So ABC is not the only game in town anymore.”
Across CT there are seven other ABC boys houses, and only four girls programs. Part of the calculation the Wilton board made was that closing the girls’ house would have left many more girls without an opportunity, while that same opportunity still exists elsewhere for boys across the state.
“We have seen an increased demand and interest among girl applicants, and there are fewer ABC options for girls within the region. The opportunity to strengthen our program around the girls’ house was compelling,” says co-president Rich Nichol.
While it was an easier numerical decision, it a was much harder emotional one, says Mason.
“Though it became clear that focusing on one house would be the best course for ensuring the program’s long-term sustainability, the choice over which house to keep, boys or girls, was emotionally difficult,” Mason said. “Over the years, our ABC scholars have developed close relationships with members of the Board, our resident directors, host families, college coaches, Wilton High School teachers and counselors, and Wilton residents at large, and no one wishes to oversee the cessation of a long line of boys or girls whose participation in our community has been so enriching,” she added.
When it first began in 1996, ABC Wilton launched with a boys’ program, welcoming two boys at its Godfrey Pl. house. It started as a collaboration between the school district, Wilton’s houses of worship and community volunteers, with significant financial support from Wilton residents. It later grew to include a girls’ program in 2008.
All of the growth happened with support and donations from the community. The release cites “Wilton citizens, foundations, organizations and others” who have been committed to ABC with ongoing funds, as well as “…a large cadre of volunteers [that] continues to do the many functions and tasks to keep the program vital and operating. They are the heart and soul of the program through their generous contributions of time, talent, enthusiasm and funding.”
Since its inception in 1996, the organization has graduated 48 scholars from Wilton High School, who have gone on to college and embarked on successful career paths. ABC Wilton has been one of only two ABC community programs nationwide to host two houses.
ABC Wilton started at a time when Wilton’s own growth was booming–real estate was being gobbled up, large homes were being built, and residents with much more disposable income were moving to the community. Since then, the demographics have changed, and the area went through the financial downturn in 2007-2008 that has had lasting impact. Moreover, competition for resources from a shrinking giving pool has made it more difficult for many area non-profits to raise the same large donations that they once could.
Lynne Vanderslice was one of the programs first supporters, who spearheaded the fundraising, search and purchase of the Cannon Rd. property that became the boys’ residence. She eventually led ABC as its president for many years.
“Wilton was relatively unique in its ability to provide a boy’s program for more than 23 years and a girl’s program for more than eleven years. As an early volunteer, a former president, and a long-time financial supporter, I recognize this was an extremely difficult decision for the board of directors,” says Vanderslice. “Despite the heartbreak, I understand, respect and support the board’s decision. I have offered any required personal assistance to ensure an appropriate and smooth transition for the two current freshman scholars.”
She added, “A Better Chance of Wilton has enriched the lives of many, including the scholars, their families, fellow students and teachers, my family and the many Wilton residents who support the program. For that, we are all grateful.”
While it’s too early to say specifically, the option to sell the boys’ house on Cannon Rd. may be something the board considers down the road.
“When and if we’re able to sell the boys house, who knows what’s going to happen. That would help us obviously have a bigger cushion and a bigger endowment,” says Mason. “It would enable us to do more things for the girls as part of the program, which is good.”
For instance, this year ABC started sending the scholars to an outside SAT prep program. “We were trying to do it internally with volunteers who were wonderful, but it wasn’t as consistent and robust and it didn’t have all the technology behind it that programs like Bridgewater Prep have. We also have robust summer program opportunities for our scholars, not all ABC houses have that. We were the gold standard and I think we can continue to be the gold standard for the girls, which will be great,” says Mason, adding, “Wilton should be proud of the enormous achievement of supporting two houses over the past many years, and our Board is proud of that, too.”
ABC will graduate two senior boys and two girls in the Class of 2020. The program is also home to one junior girl, two freshman girls and two freshman boys. Efforts are underway in coordination with ABC National to ensure that the two freshman boys will have a fulsome experience for the duration of their high school years, with at least two other CT ABC homes offering available spots.
Mason and others at ABC are optimistic. “We’re fulfilling the promise of A Better Chance by aligning the program’s requirements with achievable donation goals and volunteer resources. As difficult as the transition may be, this will position the program not just to survive, but hopefully to continue to thrive in the years ahead.”