Visitacion Valley Community Center: The ending of a legacy

by Kevin Blackwell

The Visitacion Valley Community Center issues are of a very complex nature that have seamlessly divided our neighborhood because of what VVCC represents and how it carries out its mission. For the most part, the history of the center is well known, and its accomplishments far outweigh its failures. Although 95 years is an extremely long time, what the center does not have right now is time – and time will be the deciding factor on whether or not VVCC survives.

The growth and prosperity of this great institution can be documented through the course of these 95 years, and what has happened over a span of three years can easily shock you and give you a sense of sadness and despair, for how did it ever come to this point with VVCC? In viewing what really happened at VVCC in these three short years, I guess you can place blame at the top – the board of directors and executive director – where decisions, policies and actions are determined.

But blame is in this instance shouldered by the many who looked to the center as a refuge, a safe haven, a means of survival and a place where understanding, caring and love was given to individuals, residents, seniors and families – protecting and transforming the lives of people who lived in the Visitacion Valley community.

Throughout the years, the center has been a place where people could come to with just about any and every community issue imaginable. From family crisis, to employment/unemployment , to drug and alcohol addiction, to incarceration of family members, to domestic violence issues, to feeding families, to child care, to violence prevention and intervention, to advocating for youth, family and senior rights – you name it, VVCC has dealt with it.

For the most part, the history of the center is well known, and its accomplishments far outweigh its failures. Although 95 years is an extremely long time, what the center does not have right now is time – and time will be the deciding factor on whether or not VVCC survives.

First and foremost VVCC’s philosophy was to take care of its own. As the organization began to grow, people needed jobs. VVCC’s model was to hire from within, which meant that before you hire someone from outside of the Valley, you first look toward the community to find qualified people to fill positions of employment. Thus, the majority of staff employed at the center actually lived in Visitacion Valley.

Second, VVCC’s Family First concept meant that employees, members and residents should actually be a part of the framework of the center. Again, opportunities for valley youth and families were given first priority, and that was our ideology and standard practice.

Third, knowledge and training was a priority for the VVCC family. If you wanted to broaden your horizons through extended educational opportunities – college degree programs, vocational training, certification classes etc. – it was paid for by the center. This was extended to employees and family members as well.

Fourth, VVCC provided a network of support that was unheard of, and many outside of the center’s inner circle frowned upon this, saying that our way of doing things increased the likelihood of nepotism, conflicts of interest and favoritism.


 
More so, VVCC spread its good fortune throughout the Visitacion Valley community. Sharing became part of our personality as we financed community events, allowed our community partners to use our facilities free of charge, sponsored more than our fair share of meaningful programs, and we either donated or used our own personal funds – out of pocket – to meet the needs of individuals and families in the neighborhood from both a social and professional standpoint.

However, as VVCC began to grow in stature, programmatic and fiscal, abuses of good intentions became part of the equation, and some employees began using the center as a stepping stone to better themselves while ignoring the real problems that faced the Visitacion Valley community as a whole, forgetting the essence of how the center assisted them through life’s troubling situations.

The simple fact of the matter is, this is how VVCC developed its “community servitude” approach to dealing with the valley, and it is also why we looked so deep into solving many of the neighborhood problems. In retrospect, many people abused this spirit of good faith and started becoming self-absorbed, taking advantage for personal or financial gain, not realizing that because you were a resident or family member living in the community, you personally would be subjected to a higher standard in accomplishing the center’s mission.

As the mission widened at VVCC, people became more complacent and the entities within VVCC’s own inner circle began to self-destruct. And programs and the people in them felt they were part of their own entities – i.e., Child-Care Program, Senior Center, Family Resource Center, the Beacon Community Center etc. – and not a part of a family that encompassed a larger organization known as the Visitacion Valley Community Center.

Therefore, as the center grew, there was in-fighting between employees, lackadaisical work ethics and a culture that looked more like an organization trying to get by rather than the leading community-based organization in the valley. At the peak of VVCC’s existence, fiscal year 2008, things really began to change, and organizational scrutiny started to unfold. As new funding opportunities became a concern, we started to move toward a solid foundation. We were without a chief financial officer and child care director for approximately one year, as both position were filled in 2008.

VVCC seemed to be moving in the right direction; however, in 2009 concerns of fiscal accountability and organizational preparedness were raised by city department heads, and serving of the African American population was at issue. Although we passed fiscal audit in 2009 and standards of programmatic accountability, the questions and concerns continued. In June of 2009, city department heads sent a letter to VVCC’s board of directors stating the organization’s funding was in jeopardy if changes were not made.

These city department heads felt a change of leadership would enhance VVCC’s capabilities and right the fiscal and program accountability problems. In or around September 2009, the City and County of San Francisco placed VVCC under contract compliance monitoring and, over the course of the next few months, a new interim executive director, another new child care director, another new chief financial officer and FRC program director were hired. As changes continued, a new ideology was being formed at the center.

VVCC moved away from violence prevention and intervention services, began limiting services to parts of the community, including Sunnydale, began locking our doors out of fear of gang violence, started firing good employees at an accelerated rate, began raising salaries anywhere from 25, 50 to 75 percent on certain employees, eliminated the child care after-school program, moved the Family Resource Center and created new highly paid positions.

Between Jan. 1, 2010, and April 2010, VVCC continued to lose programming and employees; however, the monthly payroll skyrocketed to over $360,000 per month as the annual budget dropped to under $4 million. In addition, we began contracting out services, such as janitorial and the nutrition program, at astronomical amounts of money. In May of 2010, with the proposed elimination of VVCC’s food programs, members, employees and community folks protested. At VVCC’s board of directors meeting at the end of May 2010, the community made a stand.

During the board meeting, over 60 employees, residents and volunteers stormed the meeting, where the interim director and board were entertaining those same city department heads who placed VVCC under contract compliance monitoring. The message was loud and clear: The interim director had to go!

In June 2010, the interim executive director resigned, along with four board members, including the president of the board. A small victory, but it left the center in disarray. With only four board members, they began immediately assessing the situation and quickly acted to get things on track. First they dealt with the fiscal concerns. Second they began preparing for board of directors elections. Third, they quickly acted to satisfy unpaid bills, creditors breathing down their necks, payroll concerns and pending legal actions.

During the board meeting, over 60 employees, residents and volunteers stormed the meeting, where the interim director and board were entertaining those same city department heads who placed VVCC under contract compliance monitoring. The message was loud and clear: The interim director had to go!

In July 2010 and August 2010, a new board of directors was elected, an acting executive director was hired, legal actions were closed out, bills were paid and payroll was stabilized. However, in September 2010 fiscal issues were still a problem, and that meant the chief financial officer had to go. In October 2010, the CFO was removed and a consultant – an accountant – was hired. But there was a lot of work to be done because financial records could not be found and the previous CFO had totally dismantled the accounting systems.

In November 2010, the acting director and board of directors continued to find problems, as more and more things were uncovered. Next up was to find a permanent executive director, a person who could stabilize the organization. However, payroll issues still needed to be addressed. VVCC could not continue to have a payroll of around $300,000, nor could VVCC afford it.

For example, it was revealed that the interim executive director salary started out at $75,000 per year; the salary ended at $130,000 per year. The CFO salary started at $60,000 and ended at $85,000 per year. The child care director’s salary started at $62,500 and ended at $85,000 per year. The personal administrator’s salary started at $15 per hour; the position was changed to personnel officer and the salary ended at $70,000 per year. A new position, operations manager, was created and the salary was set at $80,000 per year. The FRC program director’s salary started at $45,000 and ended at $65,000 per year. Raises were given to employees and new positions created as funding and programming continued to decline.

In December 2010 and into the New Year, VVCC continued to lose programming. In January 2011, the Mayor’s Youth Evaluation and Employment Program (MYEEP) contract was lost, just as the process of finding a permanent executive director began. After two months of interviews, the board of directors chose a new executive director in February 2011, with a start date of March 1, 2011, and a salary set at $60,000 per year.

However, when the new ED took over, things were coming at him like crazy. His first day on the job, an architect came by the center and handed him an invoice for $25,000 – his first day on the job. But his first two priorities were payroll and getting the Family Resource Center in order.

Although what happened to the new ED on his first day continued to happen throughout his tenure, he streamlined payroll and began shaping the FRC. What he did was cut the payroll from around $300k to $150k, eliminated some overhead and starting moving into his next priority. He uncovered statistical data that was shocking about the FRC and he mandated that it change. What he found was the FRC from June 30, 2010, through April 2011 served only two African American clients, and this was unacceptable. Thus, the FRC program director resigned.

He began to correct some of the accounting problems, but he found additional problems in reporting requirements, and major errors in system reports in the Child Care Program. What he uncovered was the Child Care After-School Program, which generated about $300,000 per year, had been eliminated by the previous interim director in order to bring the FRC to our 50 Raymond site, saving $30,000 in rent being paid at the 161 Leland Ave. site. In addition, venders and contractors continued to come at him saying VVCC owed them money. The janitorial contract at $25,000 and the child care food contract at $45,000 and others were coming out of the woodwork.

Subsequently, as we thought things were getting better, they got worse. In May 2011 the City and County of San Francisco sent the first of two letters to VVCC, saying that as of June 30, 2011, VVCC’s funding would be eliminated. Although we tried meeting with the city department heads, the mayor’s office and our District 10 supervisor, there was nothing more that could be done. In June 2011, we began focusing on our state of California child care contract under the California Department of Education (CDE) as we realized the city funding would no longer be available.

The next move was to finalize our year end CDE reports to the state of California. Over the next few weeks, the reports were finalized and it appeared that we could continue to make ends meet and move forward with our biggest program, child care. However, it was revealed that our final CDE reports were sent in after the deadline – a huge mistake – and CDE staff told us this would be taken up at their CDE conference on July 13, 2011, and that VVCC was in serious jeopardy of losing the contract.

In addition, as we continued to talk to state officials, we realized that to support the child care contract, we needed supplemental funding from the City and County of San Francisco; without it, we could not sustain the program. But it was a done deal: The City and County of San Francisco would not provide any supplement funding to VVCC. After the CDE case conference on July 13, 2011, CDE’s recommendation was not in favor of VVCC. VVCC reluctantly relinquished the child care contract on July 19, 2011.

It almost sounds like a conspiracy to take VVCC down, but the notion that if we shoulda, woulda or coulda done things differently, it might have worked out all right is just a distant memory and that’s all it is. But we must now face the realities. The future of VVCC needs to be dealt with now.

Lastly, in contemplating the overall aspects of what occurred at VVCC since April 2012, I must be open and honest about the current administration and the status of VVCC as a whole. I will not accept, nor will I acknowledge the current interim director or current board of directors as being respectable, trustworthy or capable of building a community center that can be conducive in successfully abiding by VVCC’s vision and mission. I believe them to be manipulative, dishonest and without loyalty to the Visitacion Valley community.

Although they are responsible for VVCC and must be held accountable for their actions or non-actions, I hope deep down inside they can prove me wrong. However, it therefore must be recommended that until we can achieve and receive accurate accountability as to the overall status of the center – i.e., finances, facilities, programs, donations, dues and funding – that no money or services be provided by either donations or volunteer work until definitive answers are given to members, the community and those individuals concerned.

It almost sounds like a conspiracy to take VVCC down, but the notion that if we shoulda, woulda or coulda done things differently, it might have worked out all right is just a distant memory and that’s all it is. But we must now face the realities. The future of VVCC needs to be dealt with now.

Finally, as the Visitacion Valley community mourns over the violence that has erupted, what’s happening at the center is not the most important issue facing the community. To all the families, friends, loved ones and residents who have suffered through these tragedies, our hearts go out to you. Family is the most important thing in the world and we must not forget those young men whose lives were so precious, and to remember them as we seek an end to the violence in the Visitacion Valley community.

Special note to the Visitacion Valley community: This should be a lesson learned for future generations to come. The Visitacion Valley community is changing, and we must begin to really accept the new trends and cultural diversity that has made this community so unique for so many years. Living in a diverse community is one thing, but living diversity is yet another – accepting the creativity that is our destiny and embracing that international flavor. Then and only then will this community be recognized and begin to show the city of San Francisco it can stand together in unity.

Following service in the army and as a civilian at the Presidio and volunteer work with the San Francisco school district and community-based organizations, Kevin Blackwell began working at the Visitacion Valley Community Center in 2006. As a “servant leader,” he endeavors to bring hope, opportunities and love to people in need. He can be reached at kevinblackwell2@aol.com.