Skyline Literacy loses funding again, but leaders say they’re confident the organization can survive

By Chase Downey, contributor

Volunteer instructor Yasir Razak leads a citizenship class at Skyline Literacy in 2019. (File photo)

Skyline Literacy lost out on federal grant funding this fall, but unlike when this happened in 2018, Skyline Literacy leaders say the reading and citizenship learning organization is in a more stable situation. 

The nonprofit organization, which focuses on tutoring community members in basic literacy and providing citizenship classes, didn’t receive a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services grant, which is similar to what happened in October 2018. 

“Three years ago, when we had this big issue because of not getting the USCIS grant as we were expecting to, we were in a tenuous situation,” said Stan Farthing, president of Skyline Literacy’s board of trustees. “We made a big appeal to the community and said we really need your help to continue to do the work… In the current situation, we’re in a much better position.”

Farthing said now Skyline Literacy has a larger reserve of savings to manage a temporary loss of revenue. And that the organization thinks the loss is just that — temporary. 

“Even if we don’t get the USCIS grant in one round of grant making, we have frequently gotten the grant again in the next round of grant making,” Farthing said. 

That’s a better position than the organization found itself in October 2018 when it didn’t get a grant from the U.S Department of Homeland Security for nearly $150,000 and found itself asking Harrisonburg community members for help staying afloat. 

Skyline Literacy cut every corner possible: it reduced its staff from five to one and downsized on office space. Board members reached out to previous donors and pleaded with the community for immediate help. By Dec. 21, less than two months later, Skyline Literacy had raised more than $50,000 from about 100 donors. These funds, coupled with the organization’s emergency actions, allowed the organization to keep its programs going, then in late September 2019, it received a $250,000 grant from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

 It was official, Skyline Literacy was saved. But, like many nonprofits that rely on competitive federal grants, it’s hard to breathe easy when it comes to finances. 

Why was the funding lost?

Nelly Moreno Shenk, executive director of Skyline Literacy, said two USCIS member review teams reviewed the organization’s grant application, and both scored Skyline Literacy at 89 out of 100 points. The organization got dinged for two reasons: not stating whether the volunteers Skyline Literacy uses to teach programs will individually provide instruction or if they will instead shadow a lead teacher and a need for Skyline Literacy to provide “more information about forthcoming legal staff changes.”

Shenk said Skyline Literacy’s volunteers are trained by staff with ESOL — or English for Speakers of Other Languages — credentials. Skyline Literacy uses those volunteers in all of its programs. Shenk said the organization had provided a description of these volunteers in this grant and in previous grants, and wasn’t sure why there was an issue now with the volunteers. 

“I am not sure if it has been a misunderstanding or they have evaluation teams with more strict…criteria on volunteers,” Shenk said. “We plan to apply next year.”

What’s in store for Skyline Literacy now?

With Skyline Literacy’s current reserve of savings, Farthing said he is confident Skyline Literacy’s work will continue as normal. 

“I don’t anticipate any [employment cuts]. Nelly has arranged her staff to get done what needs to be done and be flexible,” Farthing said. “We’re still going to be able to do the things that we’ve been doing, just not at as much of a subsidized rate.”

Farthing said with the lack of funding, Skyline Literacy might have to move toward charging a fee for classes, as opposed to offering them for free as they have in the past. 

“Under the grant, most were not having to pay anything for lessons. Now, they will have to pay something,” Farthing said. “Some of the folks who receive our services are employed and have resources available to them. If we charge a little something, that may help them to buy into the services that they are getting in a more complete way.”

Farthing said while there is a possibility of turning people away, he said he believes the community will find support for individuals that cannot pay. 

“We might not be able to say, ‘yes, come ahead right now,’ but we might be able to say, ‘let us look and see if we can find resources, and then I think the likelihood is quite high that pretty soon we’d be able to come back to that person and say, ‘yes we now have the resources, so please do come ahead on,’” Farthing said. 

Skyline Literacy has launched an end-of-the-year fundraising campaign, which will run through January 2022. At the time this was published, the organization had raised $2,680 out of $30,000. The campaign allows donors to choose to cover specific costs, such as a $60 donation for semester registration and materials for one ESOL student or a $500 donation for a year of one-on-one services for a low-income student, among other choices. 

While losing the grant means losing financial support for offsetting the costs of services, it also means a possibility of loosening conditions that Skyline Literacy has to follow, such as having to help a certain number of people within a given time frame and having a certain percentage of its students pass the citizenship tests. If Skyline Literacy were to not meet the benchmarks required in the USCIS grant, it might mean losing some money.

“I don’t think that we were being held back by [USCIS’s conditions]. But at the same time, to not have to worry about that quite so much, it frees us up to do whatever somebody needs us to do,” Farthing said. “If somebody has done our citizenship prep but does not pass the test, we can go back and help them again, and see if we can get them prepared to do it again. That not passing doesn’t count against us.”

Farthing said overall, the organization’s mission is important and he hopes donors will stand up to support Skyline Literacy this year. 

“Since we have been doing… a better job of relating to the community what we do and what the whole benefit to the community is, I think that people are stepping up more,” Farthing said. “Some of them see the economic and community benefit to folks who are integrated in the community, and well prepared to work and contribute to the community in other ways, and I think that people also see that because it’s the right thing to do.” 

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