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Worcester Community Agencies to Take Over for Closing Willis Center

Monday, January 21, 2013

 

The Henry Lee Willis Community Center will close its doors for good on Wednesday, February 6, after having several state agencies cut the Center's funding in December, but the City is taking steps to make sure the services the Willis Center provided to residents of Worcester continue uninterrupted.

The non-profit Willis Center provided a number of social and human services in Worcester, ranging from substance abuse recovery and shelter for homeless individuals to offering food pantry services at multiple sites across the city to an around 2,000 households each year.

But in December 2012, four state agencies abruptly yanked their funding from the Willis Center over grave concerns about the non-profit's financial management and client care issues, leading to a hastily convened meeting that included Mayor Joseph Petty and other local officials to determine the impact of the Center's defunding and make sure critical services would continue.

A 2010 audit of the Willis Center by the accounting firm O'Connor, Maloney & Co. found that the Center relied heavily on the Commonwealth's various agencies for its operations.

"If a significant reduction in the level of this support and revenue were to occur," the audit stated, "it may have an effect on the Center's programs and activities."

The Willis Center was also appropriated $42,409 from the City for its food pantry services as part of Worcester's FY2013 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) allocations.

In a memo to the City Council, City Manager Michael O'Brien noted the vital role the Willis Center played for many families in Worcester through its food pantry services and distribution of food baskets and holiday meals and snacks, as well as the importance of preserving those services.

"As such, the City reviewed its current CDBG-funded providers to determine if a seamless transition could occur based on a number of factors, such as familiarity with CDBG rules and procedures; experience and capacity to operate a high volume food service program; status with the Worcester County Food Bank; ability to provide the services expeditiously; and others," he said.

Beginning Friday, February 1, the neighborhood center Friendly House will take over the Willis Center's food pantry services at Plumley Village and Belmont Towers, and the non-profit Latino organization Centro Las Americas will handle food pantry services at Great Brook Valley, Booth Apartments and Lincoln Village.

"Both agencies have proven track records for assisting low- and moderate-income families, experience with CDBG and the Food Bank, the administrative capacity to oversee the program, and bi-lingual/bi-cultural competencies," O'Brien said.

The City Manager added that the City is in the process of developing contracts with the two community agencies for the additional services they will be providing, and a finance item on the City Council agenda will transfer $15,639 previously allocated to the Willis Center to be available for food pantry services from alternate providers. 

 

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