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Merton Center Faces Financial Crisis

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As an advocate for peace and social justice, the Thomas Merton Center and the organizations it works with have a history of not mincing words. The conversation is no less frank when it comes to discussing the center's financial situation.

"The Merton Center is broke," says Kevin Amos, communications director for the TMC. "Summertime is traditionally a hard time for nonprofits, they're all struggling.

"Because of some emergency building repairs and numerous other repairs that have fallen through the cracks we are really struggling."

The problems started, Amos says, when the center had to go into its general fund to replace a rickety fire escape that was beyond repair on the building it owns at 5125 Penn Ave. Demolition of the old structure cost $6,000 and the new one cost $22,000 -- $11,000 of which is still owed.

Further problems developed when the demolition caused damage to the building's exterior. The recent heavy rains then poured into the center causing damage to both the TMC main offices and the thrift store next door.

The thrift store has become an important community and TMC fixture. Not only does it generate about $2,000 per month in cash sales, Shirley Gleditsch, a store employee, says about another $1,000 in merchandise leaves the store through an extensive voucher program. The $12 vouchers are handed out to local churches and social-service agencies to be distributed to those in need at their discretion. "If someone comes in with a voucher," says Gleditsch, "we don't question it, we honor it."

"Even beyond those immediate problems, there is just a lot of work that needs done -- we need a new phone system for example," Amos says. "We have big problems and the money is just not there to fix them."

When asked what it would take to get the center fiscally healthy again, Amos estimates around $70,000.

The one positive is that the money that the TMC uses to fund its partner projects -- that range in scope from the Africa Project to the Anti-War Committee to the Book 'Em program that sends books to prison inmates -- is in a separate fund. But while those funds are safe, it doesn't mean the center necessarily is.

"Our computer network needs work, our interior now needs fixed, we need new gutters and downspouts, plus we need to make payroll every month," Amos says. "It's seriously affecting our ability to operate."

Those linked to the center became aware of the dire financial situation in recent weeks after an e-mail was sent out explaining the situation. The TMC is seeking grants to help with repairs, but because that money, if granted, would take some time to arrive, the e-mail notice encouraged anyone affiliated with the center to purchase a $25 annual membership.

"We're just starting to get the word out and we are asking people to become members," Amos says. "In addition to the general public, we're also seeking help from our major donors."

Amos says the hope is that the financial crisis won't ever force the TMC to suspend its operation. He says he doesn't think the board of directors will ever let that happen, but help is needed soon.

Mike Butler, a TMC member and volunteer, says the resources that the TMC offers to the activist community are invaluable and he couldn't imagine many groups' future without it.

"Many groups would be unable to organize without the Merton Center," he says. "They send out two e-mail blasts every week, they have a great newspaper. They get the word out and have become a melting pot for peace and justice organizations in this city.

"In fact, without the Merton Center, a lot of these groups probably wouldn't be able to function in the future."

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