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Free at Last organization struggles to survive

Shooting death of co-founder David Lewis may be a mortal wound for recovery nonprofit, affecting hundreds of participants

The shooting death of David Lewis last June 6 may have mortally wounded the nationally known recovery and rehabilitation organization he co-founded, "Free at Last," based in East Palo Alto and serving a broader area.

Free at Last's current leaders say they need to start making cutbacks within two weeks but will try to maintain services as long as possible for hundreds of recovering addicts, individuals released from jail or prison, those with mental illness or emotional problems and others who stumble in from a "thug life" on the streets.

The program needs an immediate infusion of about $120,000 to continue full operations for another month. The 30 staff members have been told of the crisis. The group's leaders say they are "feeling their way" about how to restructure programs to cut costs but see no way at present to bridge the overall funding shortfall. Staff members a year ago took a 2 percent salary cut, and some have declined payment for part or all of their hours.

"We have an incredibly dedicated staff," Free at Last board chair and co-founder Vicki Smothers said.

But she acknowledged such sacrifices can't fill the shortfall and can't go on indefinitely.

Loss of the charismatic Lewis, who as president of the nonprofit's board did much to keep income flowing in, left the organization without a fund-development component, CEO Gerardo Barragan, Smothers and Chief Financial Officer Fena Finau told the Weekly Wednesday.

While the program received $634,000 from San Mateo County in the past year, its annual budget tops $1 million. The shortfall has been filled with fees for some classes, grants and additional funding for specific programs.

But now, income from fees has dropped from about $20,000 per year to about $2,000 last year and may be approaching zero, Barragan said.

Lewis, an ex-convict and addict who dedicated years to helping others rebuild their lives, was shot in the back after an altercation with another man in a San Mateo shopping center -- allegedly by a longtime friend from East Palo Alto.

Cutbacks in staff or services at the 17-year-old nonprofit organization will impact hundreds of persons in the group's programs, drop-in center, counseling and housing programs, most at pivotal times in their lives, staff said. Some in mandated programs face a possible return to jail or prison if other programs can't absorb them, Smothers said.

More bad news came in Wednesday morning.

"I just got a call this morning that there would be no more funding from BASN -- the Bay Area Service Network -- which paid about $50,000 a year for parolees getting treatment," a still-stunned Barragan said at the noontime interview.

The leaders are taking steps to help raise more funds. One staff member is convening a group of former foundation officials and staff members to help write grant proposals -- but those take time to get results.

The organization runs four treatment houses and four transitional houses with another transitional house in the works. The houses would be among the last elements of the program to be cut, Vicki and Gerardo said.

Last Monday (April 25) Free at Last held a graduation ceremony for a half dozen men and three women who completed specific programs or the full program.

At a January anniversary celebration, program participants chanted, sang and did a performance skit about their lives since they became involved with Free at Last.

Women in the program have taken their singing/chanting/skit performances to Narcotics Anonymous (NA) chapters in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties as a "self-esteem booster" for those attending the meetings.

"Some of the women haven't ever been something, and their recovery involves 'giving back' to others. We're a lot about giving back," Smothers said.

If worse comes to worst, the staff will have to refer out participants to other programs, Smothers said.

But she quickly added that few programs can absorb many more clients. Those with no place to turn may return to living in the streets.

"Most come from the streets to get healthy -- mentally, physically and spiritually," she said.

But in meeting new clients and looking at existing clients, "I just see faces of people who don't have anyplace to go" should Free at Last cease to exist, she added.

Jay Thorwaldson is the former editor of the Weekly.

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