News and analysis
August 13, 2015

After Katrina, Boys and Girls Clubs Go From $19-Million Rebuilding to Reality

Megan O'Neil, for The Chronicle

Board member Ricky Ingargiola leaves a Boys and Girls Clubs facility in Pass Christian, Miss., that was named in honor of the Arab nation that donated $5 million to help the organization rebuild following Hurricane Katrina.

A quarter-mile inland from the white sandy beaches, and just across the way from an old Southern graveyard with rows of upright tombstones, sits a gleaming 33,000-square-foot building that catches the eye in this mellow Gulf Coast town.

The Boys and Girls Club, in fact, has its origins in another gulf. The Persian Gulf.

The facility is called the Qatar Center at Pass Christian — it was named for the government that donated the money for its construction — and serves as many as 250 children a day. It’s one example of the indelible mark that Hurricane Katrina left on the nonprofit sector in the region when it raged through 10 years ago this month. Organizations in battered Gulf states were brought to their knees, and then found themselves the recipients of a wave of charitable giving, sometimes from the most unexpected sources.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of the Gulf Coast, which saw all five of its facilities devastated by Katrina, received $19 million in donations in the years following the storm. By 2010 it once again had five fully functioning sites, including the Qatar Center, in coastal Mississippi.

But like many of the developments that have unfolded in the decade since Hurricane Katrina hit, this is no simple story of rebirth. An abundance of money comes with its own challenges. There were arguments within the leadership about how best to use certain gifts. There were tight parameters on how to spend others. And the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Gulf Coast rebuilt in a big way, adding thousands of square feet of space and many more kids, just as the economy, and fundraising, turned south.

"I don’t think anybody was ready for the cost of running an organization that essentially had tripled in capacity," says current Executive Director David Sykes.

Sitting in a small board room at the Qatar Center at Pass Christian on a recent morning, with large portrait photographs of the Emir of Qatar and his father off to one side, current and past leaders of the organization recalled a determination to endure. There was never any question the rebuild would take place, they say, but there were complications they wish they had anticipated.

"Would we build as grand as we did?" says Sue Reed, who was executive director at the time of the storm and oversaw the early stages of the rebuilding. "Maybe, maybe not."

Wiped Out

With cellphone service down, electricity out, and roadways clogged with debris, it took more than a week after Hurricane Katrina for Ms. Reed to get to the organization’s central administrative offices and bingo hall, located near the water in Biloxi.

Just a slab remained. Nearby was a huge casino barge, carried inland by the ocean surge.

"You are just in la-la land in your mind," Ms. Reed says. "One part of you is going, ‘Oh, God!’ And the other part of you is thinking ‘OK, we have got to get through this and get going.’"

In the ensuing weeks, the organization’s leadership reconnected, first by phone and then in person. A staff member had taken the main server home with her as the storm approached, and it was safe. A board member identified an undamaged school in the community of D’Iberville as a place to get programming started again. Another provided office space in a building in downtown Biloxi.

Ms. Reed and her team had no crisis management experience. There was no how-to guide.

But there would be insurance money. Donations were coming in. The national organization was in steady contact and started a fund. Other Boys and Girls Club leaders from around the country lent support. Ms. Reed was able to keep her full-time staff paid.

One day in early 2006 she got a telephone call from a law firm representing Qatar. The tiny, oil-rich Arab nation had started a Katrina-recovery fund and wanted her to apply for money.

"At first I thought it was a joke. I thought somebody was messing with me," Ms. Reed says. "But then we kept talking, and I said, ‘You’re real.’"

‘Treated Like Royalty’

Ms. Reed borrowed a building plan from a former colleague at a Boys and Girls Club in Arizona. She tapped her national organization’s design and building team. And she went "whole hog," she says, putting together a proposal to replace all five sites demolished by the storm.

Her vision was to create facilities that could serve not only as Boys and Girls Clubs but also as community centers, to be used for other purposes by other groups.

The government of Qatar offered $5 million for one site. All of it had to be spent on the construction of a building. With a highly engaged board, a supportive mayor, and public calls to rebuild, Pass Christian jumped to the top of the list. Then the school superintendent offered a parcel of land adjacent to the site where the schools were to be rebuilt. It was agreed that the club and the schools could share a gym.

There was a trip to the Qatar embassy in Washington, where "we were treated like royalty," says Ricky Ingargila, a longtime board member of the Pass Christian club.

The ambassador visited Mississippi. Now the community would know that "not all Muslims are bad," he told local leaders.

The Qatar Center at Pass Christian opened in 2009.

Building Fast

In addition to money from the Qataris, the $19 million in philanthropy that the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Gulf received included $500,000 from Disney, $1 million from the legendary golf course designer Tom Fazio, and $200,000 from the Brett Favre Foundation.

There was a widespread feeling among all kinds of organizations in the Gulf in the years following the storm, Ms. Reed says, of "here’s the money, build it now, because that money is not going to be as much later on."

The reopening of the five Boys and Girls Club sites, three of them newly constructed, was 100 percent philanthropy-supported — no government dollars. The new facilities and programming roughly doubled the organization’s operating expenses to more than $4 million. Before the Qatar Center opened in Pass Christian, for example, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Gulf had been operating there in a few thousand square feet of temporary space. Now the organization had a 33,000-square-foot building with a gym and classrooms.

"When this building opened, from that day forward, there was an operating deficit," Mr. Sykes says.

The opening of the new sites coincided with the economic downturn. The BP oil spill wreaked further havoc on the local economy. The organization had set in motion a capital campaign that was supposed to ensure operating funds for four to five years, but key pledges failed to materialize.

"People lost homes and jobs, and left the area," Mr. Sykes says. "It just wasn’t the same place for years."

The Boys and Girls Clubs of the Gulf had approximately $5 million in reserve left over from Hurricane Katrina-related donations. It used that to survive. The level of operation was not sustainable.

Getting Back to Black

When he took the helm two years ago, Mr. Sykes charted a course to get the organization back on firm ground. He eliminated five staff positions. He cut programs that weren’t part of the core mission. He relocated the East Biloxi club from a space rented from the school district — $5,500 a month — to a free location.

There have been smaller cost-saving steps as well; Mr. Sykes points to the array of diamond-shaped glass that serves as the striking facade of the Qatar Center, where he’s installed window tints to reduce energy costs.

The near-term outlook for the organization is OK, says Mr. Sykes. Next year it will be back in the black with an operating budget of about $2 million. It recently gained a new major donor, and it received a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant that is worth $1.9 million over three years.

That buys time, Mr. Sykes says, for the organization to work on increasing its fundraising capability.

With the new grant, he says, he expects to have between 65 and 70 full-time and part-time staff, up from the 55 he has now.

The organization is still in contact with its Qatari benefactors. The ambassador visited most recently in April.

Ms. Reed says her dream to build clubs that could serve a wide array of community needs was only partially successful. Strict parameters for how FEMA funds could be used badly limited what could have been significant public-private partnerships in the rebuilding, she says.

Still, she says, she feels really good about what she and her colleagues were able to accomplish. They proved themselves, and the organization, to be resilient under harrowing circumstances.

"There is just no time for looking back and feeling bad about it," Ms. Reed says. "While you are in the middle of it, you don't think the economy is going south."

They may have gone a little too far in their rebuilding, she says, "but that is what we had, that was the plan, and that is what we did. You live with it."

The organization’s leaders say they remain focused on the mission — to prepare the community’s children to be educated, successful adults. And they say they are both realistic and prepared for the challenges of running a nonprofit. They hope to never see the likes of Katrina again.

"Everybody goes from year to year," board member Ricky Ingargila says. "If we survive another year without a major storm, or any storm, we are in good shape. If something else hits, we will deal with it."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.