Nonprofit group granted temporary stay at Bluffton House

dburley@islandpacket.comDecember 9, 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 nonprofit organization's fight to keep its Bluffton headquarters at an apartment complex has ended for now, but the group's long-term home is still uncertain.

Neighborhood Outreach Connection, which provides after-school help and other services to low-income families, has received permission to stay at Bluffton House Apartments until the semester ends Dec. 20, chairman Narendra Sharma said Monday.

The group previously was told by the complex's management company that it must vacate its two apartments when its lease expired at the end of November.

"At least we are able to finish up the semester," Sharma said. "We'll press to stay here after that."

Attempts Monday to reach the managing company, Massachusetts-based Aspen Square Management, were unsuccessful.

Sharma said he believes an Oct. 30 petition delivered to the complex's leasing office by a crowd of protesting students, teachers and parents prompted the management firm to change its mind.

"I've seen significant changes in their attitude and willingness to cooperate with us," he said of negotiations with the firm.

But Sharma said the nonprofit organization, which provides after-school help to around 65 children in the apartments, still has no home for next semester.

Aspen Square has said Neighborhood Outreach Connection cannot stay in its two subsidized apartments, where it does not pay rent. A state law does not allow low-income housing providers such as Bluffton House, which leases a mix of subsidized and non-subsidized housing, to accept rent from nonprofit groups for subsidized apartments.

Instead, the management company has offered one non-subsidized apartment at $1,000 a month, Sharma said.

Sharma said such a deal would help the students who live at the apartments and struggle to find transportation elsewhere. However, it also would force the group to cut its current operations in half or hold two sessions a night instead of one.

"One unit is not ideal," he said. "We are already at maximum capacity. How do you decide who comes to the program? It would be an awkward position to be in.

"And a session later in the night would be tough for little kids who just don't have gas left after a long day."

Neighborhood Outreach Connection also is considering a classroom trailer at neighboring Lowcountry Presbyterian Church, which is across Plantation Park Drive from Bluffton House, he said.

Joe Crowley, an elder at the church, said it's up to the nonprofit to research whether a trailer is feasible.

"The church feels great about the program," he said. "But before we can do it, we want to make sure it's actually doable."

Sharma said more details would be settled once a decision is made at Bluffton House.

Neighborhood Outreach Connection has been at Bluffton House since 2010. It has a similar center at nearby Simmons Cay Apartments and at The Oaks on Hilton Head Island.

In three years, the group has provided more than 500 health screenings for hypertension, diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer and HIV at the Bluffton center, Sharma said. It also offers after-school and summer-school programs for at-risk youth; workshops on dental hygiene, nutrition, banking and entrepreneurial skills; and English training for adults.

"It's become a centerpiece of the Bluffton community," he said. "People recognize the success of this model. It'd be ideal for us to stay here and continue helping these kids."

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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