By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
On March 31, an agency that provided education, employment, training, and career development services had to close its doors after 30 years of helping more than 30,000 people in King and Snohomish Counties — for free.
The Center for Career Alternatives (CCA) was founded in 1979 by Alan Sugiyama, who was its executive director from its inception until June 2010. It started as one office with two staff members — Sugiyama and Mark Okazaki, who is now the executive director of Neighborhood House. By 2009, it had expanded to five offices with about 43 staff members.
“I wanted to help people in a very direct way,” said Sugiyama, speaking on what drove him to create CCA. “I always thought that the key to one’s life was education, employment, and training. Those were the areas we focused on, that whole career development track. Once you’ve covered those areas, it opens all kinds of doors. Once you get that education, once you get that experience, all kinds of wonderful things happen.”
However, CCA has undergone financial hardships in the last few years, amassing about $250,000 in debt, according to current CCA Executive Director Peter Tsai. After closing its doors on March 31, CCA took some time squaring things away before declaring bankruptcy on April 12.
The financial problems
“About three years ago, I think funders kind of got to the point where they still were funding our programs, but they weren’t able to provide any increases — cost of living kinds of things,” said Tsai, who had worked for CCA for 25 years. “It was getting tougher and tougher to support our programs, [and] we had to do more fundraising to make ends meet. About the same time, fundraising became difficult because of economy cut backs. Employers didn’t have much discretionary money to support nonprofits.”
After training and educating its participants, CCA would sometimes match participants with local employers at no cost.
“In the past, we always tried to maintain programs [that were operating] at a loss,” said Tsai. “We then had to borrow some money, and got into a little bit of debt. About a year ago, we lost a major program in Snohomish County. It really curtailed our ability to maintain the administrative side of the organization.”
Last year, CCA had to vacate a facility in Snohomish County before its lease was up because it could not afford to keep the location running. At the same time, CCA was obligated to continue paying the lease for the full duration of its contract. CCA downsized and was able to make ends meet for six to eight months. Unfortunately, it was waging an uphill battle.
Records show that CCA’s decline in funding started in 2007. The CCA was awarded $2,818,388 in 2006 and $3,339,205 in 2007. But program costs alone spiked from $2,380,851 in 2006 to $2,999,354 in 2007.
CCA lost a large contract during the spring of 2010, the Workforce Development Council of Snohomish County for the Department of Labor’s Workforce Investment Fund.
“Losing that federal contract probably started the ball rolling toward where we are now,” said Tsai, though he said that the financial situation is more accurately described as a combination of getting less funding on all levels. “Over all, [cuts were] pretty spread out between city, county, school districts, and some smaller entities. … We had changes in our school district contract and other contracts, which all impacted the agency, even though the dollar amount [lost] wasn’t as large [as the federal contract].”
“For the past three years, it’s been like the duck-in-the water scenario,” said Tim Julius, a CCA board member, who works for Tulalip Casino. “On the surface, we looked fine, but underneath the surface, we were trying to stay afloat.”
Julius said that a revolving door of financial directors also had something to do with CCA’s dire situation. During the past three years, CCA has had three different financial directors.
“I think [the three different financial directors] contributed more toward us having a hard time gathering a clear picture of where we were, financially,” said Tsai. “Every time you have a change, each financial director kind of has his or her own system. Unfortunately, we had three in a row who were very part-time and were not able to fully get a handle on where we were.” Tsai said the quick turnover in financial directors was due to changing circumstances in the lives of each director and didn’t have to do directly with CCA.
Julius said that one of the financial directors saw that CCA had a $100,000 line of credit and used it without informing the board, which exacerbated problems.
“We tried to cut expenses,” said Julius. “But the loss has been increasing every year because people have been cutting [their budgets due to the economy].”
Julius said that the board did reach out to CCA alumni for contributions. Each year, CCA organizations held an annual dinner to raise funds. However, CCA was unable to raise enough to meet its goals. The board met in late March and decided to declare bankruptcy.
“I think that it is just indicative of the state of the economy and the times,” said Alaric Bien, executive director of the Chinese Information and Service Center, which provides advocacy, social, and support services to Chinese and Asian immigrants throughout King County. Since CCA’s closure was relatively quiet, Bien didn’t know about it until he was asked to comment.
“It’s unfortunate that a well-respected and venerable institution like CCA is having to shut its doors,” said Bien. “We (social services agencies and nonprofits) are all facing the same challenges. The mood of the people is that they don’t want to pay for services, and yet, when we lose things like CCA, people get very upset and don’t realize that it’s directly tied to the anti-tax sentiment and people not voting to support things that are important to our community — not just the API or immigrant community — but our entire community in general.”
CCA’s programs, however, will live on, in a way.
Before closing its doors, CCA board members met with Sea Mar Community Health Centers CEO Rogelio Riojas and discussed the possibility of Sea Mar continuing CCA’s programs.
“It just happened to be that it was good timing,” said Ricardo Sanchez, Sea Mar Vice President of Communications and Educational Services. “We were actually in the process of trying to form an educational department.”
“[Sea Mar] basically knew about our [financial] situation,” said Tsai. “They approached some of the people that were funding us, and said [Sea Mar was] interested in the different programs we ran. So they went to those funders and were able to get them to continue our programs under Sea Mar.”
Tsai describes the situation as two separate processes working simultaneously — CCA closing its doors and Sea Mar independently adopting some of CCA’s programs. “We closed our doors. And then Sea Mar was able to approach the different people,” said Tsai.
Sea Mar was founded in 1978 and is a community-based organization that provides health and human services throughout Washington state. Sea Mar is one of Washington’s largest minority-owned nonprofits. It has 50 medical, dental, and behavioral health clinics, and offers social services such as citizenship and ESL classes, migrant outreach and support, and service learning.
Sea Mar originally served Latinos, but it has expanded to serve all ethnicities. Sanchez said that about 45 percent of Sea Mar’s participants are Latino.
Luckily, Sea Mar has said it will hire most of CCA’s staff members. “We’ve made it clear that we plan to continue all of the programs. We will keep all of the program staff and one to two administrators,” said Sanchez.
According to Sugiyama, CCA’s Everett and Kent locations will have the same phone numbers but will operate as Sea Mar branches. The CCA’s Seattle office will close, but its services will be continued at one of Sea Mar’s Seattle locations.
Tsai anticipates staying on through the next 60 days, though he isn’t sure what his long-term plans are. “I’m going to be on a short-term contract with them, just to help with the transition,” said Tsai. “And then, we’ll see what happens after that. My focus is to make sure that the programs are running well and that they’re entrenched within Sea Mar … so that the opportunity for the staff and programs to be retained stays high.”
“[CCA’s closure] is not something we welcomed because we considered CCA one of our sister organizations. We have a high degree of respect for what they did and how they did it. But we are pleased to have the opportunity to continue their programs,” said Sanchez.
Where the fault lies
“I take full responsibility for CCA not being able to live forever,” said Sugiyama. “I say this because I don’t want anyone to say, ‘Oh the board didn’t do anything.’ Or, ‘Peter [Tsai] didn’t do something.’ It wasn’t the board, Peter, or the economy.”
“I don’t want anyone pointing their finger. The buck started and stops with me,” continued Sugiyama. “It is my responsibility. … It was starting to go downhill before [this last year]. I had a plan on how we would weather the recession. And that plan didn’t work. But the plan was mine. I can’t blame the recession. The last recession, during the 80s, we did very well — we came out stronger. A lot of other agencies folded. But we came out stronger because the plan, at the time, worked. That’s why I say it’s not the economy. [In the 1980s,] we had a higher unemployment rate. Discrimination was much more rampant than it is now.
“Part of it has to do with execution. We didn’t execute as well as we should have. There were some circumstances. Sometimes, things don’t always go right, and you can just fix it. But other times, you have multiple problems. That was the case with CCA. Some circumstances, for whatever reason — a lot of things didn’t go as well as I thought they would. The plan was mine, and it didn’t work. That’s why I take full responsibility.”
“I don’t think that’s a fair assessment,” Tsai said, responding to Sugiyama taking full responsibility. “I think all of us at the agency — we were all here — working toward the same end. I think part of it is the unfortunate times and how the economy works. And, you know, [maybe] we did not respond quickly enough. Maybe that would’ve [helped] more. [But] I think [the slower] response was because we were trying to maintain staff and our programs.”
CCA’s lasting impact
Sugiyama said one of the things he is most proud of is the fact that CCA has had a positive influence on 30,000 people.
David Ros is a Cambodian American who currently works for Priority Delivery Company Inc., a Portland-based company that has a branch in Renton, where Ros is located. Ros is an ex-convict who was helped by CCA after he was released.
“I was 16 when I was incarcerated,” said Ros. “I didn’t get out until 19 years later.” One of the many challenges Ros faced after his release was near deportation to Cambodia, though he didn’t have any family there.
“When he came out, the world had changed,” said Sugiyama. “I take a look at [Ros and others like him,] and there’s a stereotype. People think, ‘Oh, these guys aren’t worth much,’ but [I think] these guys are worth very much. … He did some things when he was just a kid, but he has really turned his life around.”
Ros said that CCA helped him acquire jobs, get an education, and obtain other resources.
“When we get out [of prison], the more direction, the more guidance we get — it always makes things a lot better,” said Ros. “CCA was there to offer me those things. [Al Sugiyama] was so in touch with what was going on with me. Now, I still stay in touch with Al. We’re actually working together on the Asian Pacific Heritage Festival [in May].” Ros will be co-emceeing the event.
“I’ve been involved with the [CCA] since Al Sugiyama founded [it],” said CCA board member Jon Bridge, of Ben Bridge Jeweler. “Losing it because of a lack of adequate funding from governmental sources and other grantors is both a shock and a shame. … We should all be grateful to Al and his dedicated staff for all they have done in the past generation for all of us here in the Greater Seattle area. We can only hope that the good work of the organization will continue through successor agencies.”
“I think any time there is a loss like this, it’s really a loss for the community,” said Bien. “Especially for our immigrants because they rely on services like what CCA has been providing for 30 years. … It’s a huge loss for all of us.” ♦
Assunta Ng contributed to this report.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.