Literacy non-profit says demand for essential skills on the rise as funding falls

Blue Gargoyle head to summer job seekers: You are directly competing with those in need of full-time position

By Ella Christoph

Pamela Bozeman-Evans is the executive director of Blue Gargoyle, a South Side social service agency, and when you hear how fast she talks, it’s easy to see how she gets so much done.

Bozeman-Evans served as the associate dean of students and director of the University Community Service Center (UCSC), then left the University to work as director of Chicago operations for Barack Obama before taking her current position at Blue Gargoyle.

While at the UCSC, Bozeman-Evans increased staff program budgets and expanded the center’s services. Now she faces a different challenge: answering to increasing need in the face of diminishing resources. “The irony of that is there are fewer and fewer dollars to support the increase [in clients],” she said.

The nonprofit organization, which began in 1968 as a coffee house at University Church run by a group of U of C divinity students, has evolved into a social service agency providing educational, after-school, and counseling services for children and adults in neighborhoods across the South Side.

Blue Gargoyle now offers adult learning, literacy, and GED preparation programs, helping community members develop the skills they need to secure a job. As job competition increases, many people are seeking to boost their qualifications just to land entry-level positions. “The job market becomes more elusive for them,” Bozeman-Evans said.

She pointed out that many people looking for jobs to support their families are competing with college students, for whom a summer job may just be a chance to earn pocket money. “You are now directly, as a college student, competing with someone where this is a full-time need,” Bozeman-Evans said.

Many young people are struggling to get jobs in an economy where even the most qualified people have trouble finding them, and Blue Gargoyle has seen a dramatic increase in attendance by youth. Two years ago, Blue Gargoyle had 20 to 30 people under 25 as part of their adult learning program. Today, they teach 60 students in that age group.

Rakim Stroman is a home-schooled student who started attending Blue Gargoyle to prepare for the GED almost three years ago, encouraged by his aunt’s success with the program. Stroman was 16 when he joined, then the youngest student in the adult program; he plans to take the test this spring.

He initially enrolled to develop the skills he would need to go to college, but his improved reading ability also helps him on a day-to-day basis at his job at Jackson Park Hospital and Medical Center. “You really have a limited time to slow down and stop when you’re in the office,” he said.

According to Stroman, many teenagers are coming to Blue Gargoyle to get an education they feel the Chicago Public School System doesn’t offer. “There have been a lot of younger people that have been kind of flooding the school,” he said.

The challenges that clients face in school or at work can make their commitment to Blue Gargoyle a struggle, Bozeman-Evans said, but many are devoted to improving their skills. “Their ‘Ah ha!’ moment, if you will, is that this economy will not support the middle-class, it will not support the high class, and it will certainly not support the poor,” she said.

Attendance rates have increased along with matriculation rates. “Attendance has always been a significant issue,” Bozeman-Evans said. “We’ve seen attendance somewhere between 65 and 75 percent, which is actually not a bad number, considering the challenges people face.” Now, Bozeman-Evans said, attendance rates are at 80 percent.

Currently, the organization works with somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 families and individuals. These numbers have pushed Blue Gargoyle’s funding to its limit. “Without any money attached to marketing, we are operating at capacity,” Bozeman-Evans said.

While Blue Gargoyle and other nonprofits like it are always looking for funding, the search is more difficult than usual this year, as philanthropic acts are the first to go when businesses trim costs. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, you know, you’ve always been on the hunt for money…so how is this any different than any year?’” Bozeman-Evans said.

Nevertheless, she said it’s understandable that floundering businesses can’t give as they have in the past. “I genuinely believe that corporate America wants to continue to be philanthropic,” she said.

The organization is also anxious about state support, which it depends upon for a significant portion of its funding. Bozeman-Evans said that in the wake of the state’s $4.8 billion deficit, it is unlikely that the state will continue to fund Blue Gargoyle to the extent that it has in the past. The state is currently three or four months behind in honoring vouchers, she said.

Nonprofits and the government must continue to work together if they want to maximize the skills of both industries. “The dilemma is that there are no resources to support the partnership,” she said. She emphasized that nonprofits have specialized skills that government programs are less capable of offering.

The effects of a social service nonprofit cutting its services are immediate and hurt the disadvantaged most, but this has not motivated government support for the sector, according to Bozeman-Evans. “We are not hearing as much about the need for economic bailouts for nonprofits,” she said. “But when a nonprofit closes their doors, there are within that hour, individuals and families who are not receiving their services.”

Programs that focus on the underserved are experiencing the same kinds of predicaments as Blue Gargoyle. “At the end of the day, these places are being drained of their resources,” Bozeman-Evans said. “The overall irony is that if other people in other industries and businesses fail, for a lot of people we are the last resort.”