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|Bertha Nelson Center facing funding crisis|
The money for the gas to fuel the two vans at Bertha Nelson Training Center comes from the pockets of the three women who work there.
A Winnsboro oil and gas company cut off the center's account at the end of February, after two months of unpaid charges of added up to approximately $2,500.
In February state Rep. Noble Ellington told center director Joanne Livingston that he was working on getting $60,000 in emergency funding, but still, in mid-March, no help has arrived.
State Rep. Noble Ellington said he was not hopeful of securing funding for the center during a special session of the Louisiana Legislature this week because the rules set by Gov. Bobby Jindal concerning how a $1 billion surplus can be spent do not allow for such expenses.
"I don't think I'll be able to get any funding out of the special session because it doesn't fit in the call," Ellington said. "But I am looking at Catholic charities, Baptist charities, Methodist charities. I'm checking every place I know to check looking for money."
Ellington was more hopeful of securing additional funding during the regular session later this year, when lawmakers have more leeway in how they opt to spend state funds.
"I think we'll be successful in the regular session without a doubt," Ellington said.
If some $4,000 in insurance payments for the center doesn't come immediately, Livingston will have to shut it down. That will leave 10 mentally and physically challenged people with nowhere to go, and no source for their meager incomes.
A parish program
It was 36 years ago last week that the roots of the Bertha Nelson Center took hold when a group of citizens formed an association to help mentally challenged children in Franklin Parish. Livingston has been there since the beginning.
The association that became the training center primarily received state funding up until July 2006, when it was switched to a federal government "waiver" program, according to Livingston.
With that switch came a drop in funding from $189,000 to between $70 and $90,000 per year.
"We went into debt almost immediately," said Livingston.
"Now we are $50,000 in the hole."
The waiver program pays per client, but only allows new clients to enter the center if there is a "slot" available.
At one time the center had 48 clients, currently there are 10, but the license is for 63.
Winnsboro competes against the rest of the state for funding for open slots.
Livingston explained that an applicant from Franklin Parish may be on the list, but will be passed over if it is another parish's turn to fill a "slot."
It's a complicated, confusing system that leads to frustration and the people needing and wanting help left unaided.
"I know personally of at least 84 people in Franklin Parish who would qualify for our services," Livingston said.
What do they do?
The men and women at the center, ages 21 through 71, are those in society where special attention and care must be given. They are not bedridden or unteachable; they need more guidance and direction than most.
"We do janitorial work, ironing and lawn care and other small jobs" Livingston explained.
Livington or instructors Ada Wright or Barbara Mercer supervise the clients on the job, whether it's sweeping, mopping and cleaning an office, mowing yards or ironing at the center.
"That's why we need the vans, and the gas to run them, to get the clients to their jobs," Livingston said.
The clients are paid a small fee for their work, but Livingston said it is the feeling of doing something of value that is vital to them finding their place in a society that looks the other way.
This year they did an exceptional amount of shelling pecans, and Livingston said, "They loved it."
Since they have no gas for the vans, clients who were once picked up at their homes have to find other ways of transportation.
"We used to be able to go get them," Livingston said. "Now they have to get their parents to bring them, and some don't even have parents."
What can be done?
Livingston and members of the center's board of directors have met with other legislators in addition to Ellington. She saw Rodney Alexander in October and state Sen. Neil Riser just last week.
"They all say the same thing, 'They'll look into it,' " said Livingston. "In the meantime we are running out of money and running out of options."
Livingston said the center needs an infusion of emergency cash to get out of debt and the waiver system needs to be changed so more clients can be served.
"It used to be that someone could walk in and I could take care of them, sign them up," she said. "Now they have to go to Monroe to apply through Region 8 and it takes a while to get an answer."
If the center closes, life in the outside world will essentially end for the 10 remaining clients. They will be left at home, left to the care of family and friends – if they have any.
"It's just a tragedy that nothing is being done to help these people, and so many more like them," Livingston said.
She said private donations are very welcome, and from April to June they have a membership drive at $15 per family. Currently there are only about 35 families participating.
"We'll just try to keep it open one day at a time," Livingston said. "It is all we can do until some of our officials get us some help."
If and until that day comes, Livingston and her staff will continue to put a few dollars' worth of gas into the vans. She said Rep. Ellington offered to buy a tank of gas when she met with him last week, but that would have hardly made a difference.
The Bertha Nelson Center needs more than a one-time fill-up, it needs a miracle.
Sun writer Michael DeVault contributed to this story.