Bluffton group that helps at-risk youth to lose home

bheffernan@islandpacket.comAugust 2, 2013 

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In this file photo, Stacy Grey, a summer teacher at the Neighborhood Outreach Connection works with Mia Rodriguez Valerio, 5, and David Sandoval, 6, at Bluffton House.

SARAH WELLIVER — Sarah Welliver Buy Photo

A group that provides after-school help and other services to at-risk youth and their families might soon be out of its home in Bluffton.

The Neighborhood Outreach Connection has provided free tutoring, health screenings and business-skills programs from its center at Bluffton House Apartments on Simmonsville Road for three years.

However, Aspen Square Management purchased the apartment complex this spring and wants the nonprofit group out of the two apartments it occupies, according to Narendra Sharma, chairman of the group's board of directors.

Sharma said the management company told the group in May that it must leave one of the apartments by the end of August and the second by Nov. 30, when the group's rent-free lease ends.

Sharma said the group was being asked to leave for "financial reasons."

Attempts Friday to reach officials with Aspen Square Management, which lists a western Massachusetts address and area code, were unsuccessful.

Monthly rent for both apartments would be about $2,000 total, Sharma said.

The group has been staying rent-free because it is deemed a "supportive-services unit" by the S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority. It would not be allowed to pay rent -- even though Sharma says it could afford to -- under the state housing authority's rules. Otherwise, the apartments are to be rented to low-income families.

The nonprofit group opened a similar center in The Oaks Apartments on Hilton Head Island five years ago.

Without a center in Bluffton House Apartments, the group won't be close enough to help the community, Sharma said. The program's strength is that it is located within the subsidized-housing complex, home to many of those it serves. Many of the residents do not have transportation, he said.

Sharma's group tries to fight poverty by bringing support directly into low-income neighborhoods, which often consist primarily of black and Hispanic families. Its outreach programs are focused on health, business skills and education.

In three years, the Bluffton center has provided more than 500 health screenings for hypertension, diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer and HIV, Sharma said.

The group also offers workshops on dental hygiene, nutrition, banking and entrepreneurial skills, and English training for adults.

Bluffton resident Robert Brown said he would most miss the free tutoring and summer school programs -- Neighborhood Outreach in Bluffton offers classes to nearly 200 students from preschool to middle-school ages. Without the group, Brown said he might not be able to afford tutoring for his 8-year-old daughter, Cierra.

Brown said he read on a third-grade level when he was in ninth grade. He noticed last school year that Cierra was a slow reader, and he worried she would fall behind in school like he did.

He enrolled his daughter at the free, eight-week summer learning program, created in partnership with the Beaufort County School District. It aims to help children retain over the summer lessons learned the previous school year.

Cierra said she was excited to start the program in June and that her focus has improved. She starts third grade this month at Bluffton Elementary School and says that when she arrives, "I'll already know all the things that I'm supposed to know."

Sharma said he met Friday morning with school district leaders to discuss opening a center for the group in northern Beaufort County. The group also plans to open three centers in southern parts of the county -- two more on Hilton Head Island an one in Pritchardville -- within five years if it raises enough money. The organization is funded through grants and donations.

Attempts to reach district superintendent Jeffrey Moss about the Friday meeting were unsuccessful.

Before starting the Neighborhood Outreach Connection five years ago, Sharma worked 32 years for the World Bank, helping impoverished foreign countries foster economic growth.

When he retired to Hilton Head in 2005, Sharma said, he realized he "didn't have to be overseas working for a global organization to fight poverty. I could do it right here."

Sharma said he hoped the group's new landlords would change their minds about making it leave -- for the community's sake.

"If we don't provide the type of services that we are doing right now, ... all we are doing is housing poverty," he said.

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.

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