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The Y in Central Maryland steps up in the crisis, but worries about its future | COMMENTARY

John Hoey, president and CEO of the Y in Central Maryland, in the fitness center of the Towson Y in 2018.
John Hoey, president and CEO of the Y in Central Maryland, in the fitness center of the Towson Y in 2018.(Staff photo by Jon Sham)

Three weeks ago, in preparation for the surge in coronavirus cases, the Y in Central Maryland offered daily child care for the children of first responders, some hospital employees and front-line health care workers. That was not something in the national playbook for pandemics — assuming we even have such a thing — but a service that was needed locally. It was a generous offer for the Y to make.

But it comes at great cost, and, partly as a result, the Y’s president and CEO, John Hoey, worries about the nonprofit’s future.

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As schools and gyms closed across the state, the Y shut its locations in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. It furloughed two-thirds of its 3,100 employees and sent a letter alerting its 140,000 members to the shutdown.

But, on March 25, the Y opened 11 of its centers and its six preschools to provide 11 hours of daily care, enrichment and meals for children whose parents are on the front lines. It made sense: The Y already offers a host of services for families, including preschool and after-school programs and summer camps. It is the largest Head Start provider in Maryland.

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On Monday, I called Hoey to see how this was working out, and the answer was, so far, only about 40%.

That is, only about 40% of the kids that the 17 Y locations can accommodate are showing up for services. That’s an average of about 400 children a day. While the state picks up some of the cost for that, Hoey says, it’s not enough to cover the Y’s expenses. Plus, the state has allowed other child care centers to remain open to serve the same families.

“I really don’t want to come across as upset with the folks at the state, who we’ve worked collaboratively with,” Hoey says. “We’ve all been trying to figure something out with no precedent, roadmap or understanding of [the pandemic] duration. Our decision to do this emergency child care was in no way a result of thinking that we would be the primary provider. We did it because there’s a need and we’re uniquely qualified to do it.

“We opened very large buildings designed for a very different purpose, which means our costs are higher to provide this service. To their credit, the state is reimbursing us at its highest rate, which we appreciate.”

But, with revenue from membership and fee-based programs “dropping like a stone,” Hoey says, he is worried about how the Y emerges from the pandemic. He and the remaining staff have taken a salary cut. “We’ve cut everything else we can think of, but the cash burn is highly problematic,” he says.

So far, help from Washington is limited because the Y employs more than 500 people and the $2.1 trillion emergency relief bill passed last month by Congress generally benefits smaller organizations and businesses. The Y will be eligible for a 50% credit for wages paid to furloughed employees, but, Hoey says, that’s about it.

“There are other provisions in the bill which provide lower interest loans that we'd qualify for, but the rate isn't really any better than what our current bank would offer and simply adding more debt isn't really going to solve our problem. The bill is obviously complex with lots of provisions and restrictions, but we've combed through it closely and it really offers nothing of value other than the 50% unemployment reimbursement.

“We are hopeful,” he adds, “for another relief package that covers non-profits like ours and others, who are doing a lot of the relief work despite losing so much of our revenue.”

I realize we are in an unprecedented-in-our-lifetimes situation, but a nonprofit that steps up in a national crisis should not have to fret about its future. The Y of Central Maryland provides services for thousands of people — you might not realize how much it does until you explore its web site — and there are a lot of other nonprofits that make up our cultural, educational and medical infrastructure. They fill the holes in a greatly diminished social safety net and respond to human needs — hunger, housing, health — otherwise ignored or inadequately addressed by one of the richest nations in the world.

When I spoke to him, Hoey still seemed stunned that everything could come to a standstill as it has. He’s far from alone in that regard. Nonprofit directors and business owners everywhere have seen their operations, built with skill and pride over years, come to a sudden halt and face, in some cases, an existential threat.

I asked Hoey if a pandemic directive — what his organization should or could do in a public health emergency like the one we’re experiencing now — ever came across his desk. The answer was no. “Most of the focus on risk management,” he says, “has been on active shooter.”

Of course. The nation’s long, horrible run of mass shootings prompted state and local governments, universities, businesses, hospitals, schools and other institutions to regularly conduct active shooter drills. But what to do in a pandemic? With little direction from the current administration in Washington, state and local governments understandably have had to develop their responses on the fly. “Everyone was scrambling and trying to do the right thing,” Hoey says.

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Yes, but in the United States of America, it should not be a scramble. More on that in my next column.

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