The Game Loft in Belfast hurt by budget cuts

Posted Dec. 21, 2011, at 6 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 29, 2011, at 11:48 a.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Just the thought of the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” brings Patricia Estabrook, co-founder and co-program director of The Game Loft, to tears.

That’s because she and her husband, Ray, have recently heard some news from their nonprofit’s owner, Spurwink Services of Portland, that is not very jolly.

Beginning Jan. 1, Spurwink Services no longer will be able to fund The Game Loft’s programs and so it will have to cut about 27 percent from its already bare-bones budget.

In response, the Estabrooks have issued an impassioned plea to their community supporters, asking for more volunteers to help them cook meals, run games or transport youths from outlying Waldo County communities.

“George Bailey survived because he had the love and support of his family and friends,” they wrote in an email bulletin sent Tuesday night referring to the main character in the movie. “We are counting on you during this holiday season to keep The Game Loft alive and to keep reaching out with hope and faith so that the kids in our care can say, ‘It’s a wonderful life.’”

Patricia Estabrook said that in 2011, the program’s budget was $129,000. With that money and a lot of support from the community it serves 160 young people each year.

On a daily basis, between 25 and 45 youths will climb the stairs to the cozy, cluttered suite of rooms where they play games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Settlers of Catan. But that’s not all they do, she said.

“Our games are the bait. It is the food, the friendship and the safety that keeps them there,” Estabrook said. “We serve primarily low-income kids, primarily boys, primarily kids from broken families, and that is by choice.”

In The Game Loft, those young people — many of whom have anger management problems or are in special education — find a place where they belong and where they can remain through high school, she said. There, they receive a hot meal every day — which is welcome in a population that often struggles with food insecurity. They’re encouraged to stay in school and work toward a hopeful future.

“They develop a system of friendship, both with adults and with kids, that sustains them,” she said.

They also are strongly encouraged to find ways to give back. Last year, youths from The Game Loft volunteered more than 1,000 hours in the community, Estabrook said.

But the budget cuts will change how things are done. Beginning on Jan. 1, the facility in Belfast will be closed on Wednesdays, although operations at the satellite program in Unity will be unchanged. Staff members have been laid off or have had their hours cut. The food service will be discontinued one day a week and the van service to outlying towns also will be halted.

Dawn Stiles, president of Spurwink Services, called the programming in Waldo County “phenomenal” but said that all nonprofits are struggling now.

“State and federal funding has been cut, and there’s never been funding for prevention, really, and that’s what they do,” she said of The Game Loft. “There’s money for these kids after they get into trouble. But this is keeping kids out of the system, keeping them engaged with those after-school hours, when kids get bored, and finding them some socially constructive things to do.”

According to Stiles, her agency has had to cut all of its programs and make them more efficient.

“Money is tight,” she said. “It’s a matter of a lot of people chasing a few dollars.”

Estabrook is hoping that although money may be scarce, goodwill is abundant. Less than a day after sending the email message asking for volunteers, she has heard some positive responses.

“People are coming out of the woodwork for us,” she said.

An employee of Waldo County General Hospital has asked what the hospital can do. A man offered his public relations skills to try to raise funds for the program.

“People have said, ‘What can we do? Where can we be of help?” Estabrook said.

She believes that The Game Loft will survive, especially if community members continue to respond in the same kind of way that the fictional residents of Bedford Falls did in George Bailey’s hour of need.

“It was the people, whose lives he changed, who gave their nickels and dimes,” she said. “We are bleeding, but we have every desire to keep on running, because this is such an important program for kids.”

For information, call The Game Loft at 338-6447 or visit www.thegameloft.org.

CORRECTION:

An early version of this story requires correction. As owner, Spurwink Services funds Game Loft’s programs, not subsidizes them.

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