Gabriel Zucker ’12 sat beside a man wearing blue jeans and mustard-colored work boots in a College Street office Wednesday morning. They faced a computer screen, and Zucker listened and typed as the man listed his qualifications for auto mechanic jobs.
“You have to sell yourself,” Zucker said. Minutes later, he had helped compose a cover letter for the man, and it was faxed to a potential employer.
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But both men knew this would be one of their last consultations.
The New Haven office where Zucker and about 30 other Yalies volunteer — home to the founding branch of National Student Partnerships, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating poverty — will shut its doors on April 24, along with three other NSP branches across the country.
National NSP representatives said the closings, which they called regrettable but necessary, are part of a strategic move to focus the organization’s resources on sites with stronger fundraising bases. But frustrated Yale volunteers said they worried about abandoning their more than 560 active clients — who benefit from NSP’s employment, housing, health care and money-managing services — at a time when they are needed the most.
Said Efan Wu ’10, a former local director and current volunteer: “It’s weird to know that NSP won’t be here anymore for students or for the clients that we’ve helped for a long time.”
The closing of NSP’s New Haven branch will be particularly “heartbreaking” because New Haven was the organization’s first branch, said Colleen Flynn, NSP’s communications associate at its national office in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit was founded in the Elm City by two Yale undergraduates.
“We’re just unfortunately not in the position to support the work,” said Shannon Murphy, NSP’s regional program manager for the branches in New Haven, Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., and the Bronx. “We don’t have enough money nationally to support a staff in New Haven.”
In its more than 10 years, NSP has grown to include 12 offices in 11 U.S. cities. Each center serves as a “one-stop shop” where college students volunteer one-on-one case-management services — help writing résumés or applying for food stamps, for example — to low-income residents in their communities, explained Sarah Geurkink, a site co-coordinator for NSP-New Haven. The organization is notably “boundary-free,” she said; there are no income-based or demographic requirements for seeking assistance.
But to sustain long-term growth NSP now must consolidate its focus and “go deep” in larger metropolitan areas by, for example, increasing staff there, Murphy explained. In larger cities like Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, she said, NSP has more viable opportunities for fundraising. In addition to New Haven, NSP is closing offices in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Richmond, Va.
While Murphy said the recession has not reduced the number of donors supporting NSP, it has forced some of them to cut back their contributions.
“The decision itself had to do with strategy, but the timing of the decision had to do with the economy,” Murphy explained. “It’s a matter of some of the people who do so generally support NSP not necessarily having the same wealth as they once had.”
BEYOND THE OFFICE
But student volunteers — who received news of the closing by e-mail over spring break — expressed frustration that they could not step in to help.
“We had no idea that there was that kind of funding trouble, or we would have been fundraising on our own long before this,” Rachel Marcus ’11, one of NSP-New Haven’s local directors, wrote in an e-mail.
NSP’s aim to improve its services at other sites is commendable, Zucker said. But he said he thinks the “go deep” strategy could compromise the organization’s original goal — mobilizing college students to provide basic services to the nation’s neediest residents.
New Haven site co-coordinator Matt Capezzuto ART ’08 said he suggested that NSP still provide services in New Haven, even if without a physical office space. But NSP did not have the resources to do so, Capezzuto said.
“Aside from that, there really wasn’t much recourse,” he added.
But students are working toward creating a group independent of NSP to do similar volunteer work. Marcus said they are aiming for the new group to start up by the time classes begin again in the fall.
Current NSP volunteers are looking to collaborate with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, the New Haven Free Public Library, and local homeless shelters and churches to continue providing NSP-like services in the Elm City, volunteers explained. The Yalies are also seeking funding from Dwight Hall, City Hall and AmeriCorps, which currently funds stipends for NSP site coordinators. (NSP is not a registered Dwight Hall member organization.)
One challenge in continuing NSP services without the physical office will be retaining current clients, whose contact information will be unavailable to students once NSP takes the New Haven branch’s client database, Wu said.
In the meantime, Capezzuto and Geurkink said they are calling clients to inform them of the coming closing. NSP’s national office is allowing the closing branches to transition clients to other local social services providers, Flynn added.
Geurkink summed up the organization’s practical approach to serving the community: “We would like to pour our energies, instead of being frustrated, into trying to find a way in which clients can get services.”