Supporters of beloved Newtown center vow to make it ‘SOAR’ again

The cryptic “Message to the Community” that appeared Aug. 7 on the SOAR Learning Center’s website came as a shock:

“The Board of Directors of SOAR Learning Center, Inc. has decided to wind down its affairs and dissolve its corporate existence. It has ceased operations effective immediately … The entire board wishes to express its appreciation for the generosity and support of the community and our partners. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the organization is no longer able to effectively support its mission.”

Carrie Seidman

Carrie Seidman

With breathtaking swiftness, the Newtown after-school and summer tutoring and dropout prevention nonprofit – which had persevered erratically for the 17 years since Jacquelyn Paulk founded it as a student reading program at the end of her 38-year teaching career – came to a screeching halt. Of all the hurdles the program had encountered over the years – funding crises, resource deficits, site shifts – this seemed the most insurmountable.

About the same time, David Rubin – the philanthropist who, with his wife Adie, raised the funds five years ago to soar-ing-future/12327410007/” data-ylk=”slk:build a new 3,000-square-foot SOAR facility;elm:context_link;itc:0″ class=”link “>build a new 3,000-square-foot SOAR facility on a site owned by the Greater Hearst AME church – discovered he was locked out of the website donor portal. And Paulk, who had continued to volunteer at the center even after the board, in May, cancelled its usual summer session, found the building’s locks had been changed, barring her access.

Everyone had the same question: What happened? How could a program so beloved by both those who served it and those whom it served end so abruptly?

A photo of the SOAR Learning Center, which offered after school, tutoring and other programs for youths in Sarasota's Newtown neighborhood. Supporters of the popular center have raised questions about its abrupt closing on Aug. 7, 2023.

A photo of the SOAR Learning Center, which offered after school, tutoring and other programs for youths in Sarasota’s Newtown neighborhood. Supporters of the popular center have raised questions about its abrupt closing on Aug. 7, 2023.

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The answer appears to trace back to April 2022, when Rubin, who was thrust into a leadership role he’d never aspired to after the building campaign, handed over the board chairmanship to another hard-working board member, gora/?gclid=95f9396934051dbb2f005db72fe2f49a&gclsrc=3p.ds&msclkid=95f9396934051dbb2f005db72fe2f49a&utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=FL&utm_term=donna%20gora%20fl&utm_content=Donna%20Gora” data-ylk=”slk:Donna Gora, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch;elm:context_link;itc:0″ class=”link “>Donna Gora, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch and the only one willing to accept the position at the time.

According to former staffers, that transition brought a different leadership style and more rigorous oversight to what had always been a close-knit, community-centered organization with a family feel and focus. (When contacted, Gora offered “No comment at this time” and deferred to the website message.) Many felt Gora, who is white, lacked insight into the culture of Newtown and communicated in a way that was off-putting to her Black SOAR colleagues.

“We may not have had all our procedures strictly in place, but people were friendly, everyone got along, parents liked us,” says Anita Rogers, who began writing successful grants for SOAR in 2019. “It was like ‘the little program that could.’ It felt like my family.”

Gora was reportedly concerned with tightening SOAR’s financial practices, which she felt were too lax to provide necessary accounting to funders. To that end, she initiated a number of personnel changes, including letting go the program’s CPA, Francina Hollaway, at the beginning of this year. Rogers’ grant writing contract was not renewed at the same time.

Just before the end of the school year, Gora hired Rick Thurman, a marketing and media consultant with no background in education, as the center’s first executive director. Shortly thereafter program director Celestine Campbell was released, as were the center’s five part-time teachers, who were told to reapply for their positions. Paulk says it was also “suggested” that she retire.

Next, letters were sent to parents of the 40-some SOAR students, notifying them the center would not offer its usual summer programming, aimed at ensuring students didn’t backslide academically over the school break. Gora reportedly pulled grant applications already in progress for the program, which also provided support for working parents and free meals for the children.

When Paulk asked why the program was being discontinued, she says she was told only that “there was no money.”

“We were disallowed access to documents that were necessary to complete the grant reports, denying this most vulnerable population the opportunity to continue their academic skills and receive a free breakfast and lunch,” Paulk says. “When we asked if we could continue to program on a volunteer basis, the answer was no.”

No one has been accused of financial malfeasance, illegal benefit or acting with malice. At least one funder acknowledged that while many grassroots nonprofits like SOAR “have things they could do better” in terms of accounting practices, SOAR’s annual budget – which has never exceeded $275,000 – was hardly worth plundering. Paulk believes funds may have been spent on hiring “lawyers and accountants” for “investigative” purposes.

“I didn’t feel angry,” she says of hearing the closure news. “I just felt sad for the adults who would behave that way. Sometimes there are lessons to learn as we move along and a lot of us learned a lot of lessons on this one.”

Fortunately, this sad story may yet have a happy ending. Dozens of staffers, volunteers, past board members and donors have expressed not only a determination to resurrect SOAR, but a resolute belief it can and will happen. Funders like the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, the Rotary Club of Sarasota Southside and the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition (among others) have pledged to continue their financial support.

Rubin, who spent the past week acting as mediator between those supporters and the still-existing board, believes the center will ultimately emerge stronger than ever.

“I know in my heart that this most recent organizational hurdle will lead the center to an even brighter future,” Rubin says. “SOAR has always been a launching pad for the children of Newtown and a critical resource for their families. I find the very thought of children once again filling the classrooms and studying on the beautiful grounds thrilling.”

At this transitional time, SOAR is unable to accept donations, so I plan to write a follow-up piece that will provide donation channels as soon as they are set up.

Contact Carrie Seidman at [email protected] or 505-238-0392.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Questions remain over closing of popular Newtown learning center

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