Loss of grant funding brings program to halt

Monday, January 29, 2007

A beloved and valued program designed to prevent and address child sexual abuse is no longer available to children in Southeast Missouri.

The Green Bear Club, offered through the Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence, has been discontinued effective immediately in the middle of a school year due to a lack of funds, said SEMO-NASV executive director Tammy Gwaltney.

The program teaches children how to avoid sexual abuse, what to do if they have been victimized and offers teachers, parents, counselors, police and other adults information on handling a report of child sexual abuse. Age-appropriate programs are offered in school classrooms in 50 schools from pre-K through high school in Southeast Missouri counties, Gwaltney said. About 10,000 children each year are visited at the schools.

For the past five years much of the program has been derwritten through the Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant is administered in Missouri through the Department of Health and Senior Services. The interactive program receives supplemental funding on a much smaller scale through money obtained from SEMO-NASV fund-raisers and charitable donations, Gwaltney said.

Counselors work with a large, green, fuzzy bear puppet -- called Green Bear -- to help younger children assimilate information in way they can understand, she said. The puppet is an effective teaching tool, delivering safety messages in a positive, interactive manner that children remember for years to come.

While the puppet's presence diminishes in the programs as children get older and benefit from Internet and dating safety tips and other age-appropriate issues through the program, it is still the Green Bear program.

Last year SEMO-NASV received about $38,000 through the grant which was used primarily for educational materials and limited travel expense reimbursement for two contract workers who travel to schools to present the Green Bear program. Their pay is not funded by the grant, she said.

She said the agency received no warning it would not receive funding this year, and the notification its application was rejected sent a shock wave throughout the agency and schools throughout Southeast Missouri.

Assuming its application would be accepted this year as in the past, the program ran four months without funding on the assumption its request would be accepted. Notified by mail early last week the request was denied effectively shut down the Green Bear program immediately, leaving schools in a lurch.

"Teachers and schools are upset about the cancellation," Gwaltney said. "Never in our wildest imagination did we think that our program wouldn't be funded again."

DHSS representative Nanci Gonder said the reason funds weren't granted this year was because SEMO-NASV did not properly complete the application due in October, which was a slightly different application than in previous years.

Applicants were required to describe how funding would be used in one of 14 categories set by the CDC ranging from preventing bullying to how community infrastructure to prevent sexual assault would be developed. Gonder said that as SEMO-NASV did not address a category, its application was rejected. The decision can be appealed, she said.

Gwaltney disagrees with DHSS's explanation, saying SEMO-NASV used experienced and qualified persons to complete the application properly.

"That's new and different information than what the contact at the Department we spoke with said," Gwaltney said. "The program application didn't substantially change. We are used to writing grants." According to Gwaltney, the explanation offered by DHSS was that the program wasn't considered effective so funding was not approved.

"The thing that came as such a surprise from us was that they said this program wasn't working," Gwaltney said. "It was just like, wow, I never would have left this program in a vulnerable position."

Gwaltney is hoping the community and business sector will help out with funding to get the program up and running again.

"My hope is that someone in the Missouri Department of Health will also step up to the plate," she said.

SEMO-NASV has submitted a written complaint, she said, being told this was its only avenue to address the situation.

"I was told there wasn't a formal appeal process," she said.

School districts in the region depend on the program to fulfill their obligations to provide state-mandated sex abuse prevention programs as part of its curriculum. It is the only such program in the southeast region to do so, Gwaltney said.

Jefferson Elementary School principal Mark Cook was disappointed to learn of the cancellation of the Green Bear program.

He hasn't had a chance to determine how the program will be replaced, saying it had been a successful program well-received by teachers and students alike.

"As far as I know, there's nothing else that can take the place of it," he said. "Anytime you take away a positive message to kids, it's a bad thing."

For more information about SEMO-NASV programs, the Green Bear program, or to make a donation, visit the Web site at www.semonasv.org.

carel@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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