Skyline Literacy Struggles for Funding

Nov 29, 2018

For decades, Skyline Literacy has offered English and citizenship classes to the Shenandoah Valley’s large immigrant and refugee communities. But after losing out on a large federal grant earlier this year, the organization’s future is in question. WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports.

[Fade in Ghaidaa Sabti speaking Arabic]

Speaking in Arabic, her native language, Ghaidaa Sabti describes her warm feelings for Harrisonburg, where she’s lived for more than five years. Here’s her translation:

GHAIDAA SABTI: I like to live in Harrisonburg, me and my husband and my children and my friends, because Harrisonburg is safe for every culture. Black, white, any people, any refugee can live here.

[Arabic fade out]

Sabti and her husband came to the United States as refugees from Iraq with five kids. They’ve since added a sixth child, and in early November, Sabti took the oath to become an American citizen.

SABTI: I am very happy, because I feel safety now.

To prepare, Sabti took English and citizenship classes through Skyline Literacy, a Harrisonburg nonprofit that has served the area’s large immigrant and refugee communities for more than 30 years. But in September, Skyline got some really bad news: it didn’t receive a large federal grant that’s made up a huge chunk of its budget in recent years. Barbie Spitz is the organization’s literacy program coordinator.

BARBIE SPITZ: I mean it was like a sinking feeling, you know? I was really expecting to get that grant, so it was a huge blow, and it honestly took a few days for me to realize how this was going to change the entire future of Skyline Literacy.

In 2010, 2012 and 2015, Skyline received significant funding through a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services grant. The last grant, jointly awarded to Skyline Literacy and the local Church World Service office, ran through September 2017 and allowed Skyline to offer citizenship classes to nearly 300 people in the area. The large majority of those who applied for naturalization after taking these classes passed their citizenship test and interview. After a year’s break from the program, Spitz says, they expected to receive around $150,000 they’d requested for another two-year period beginning this October.

SPITZ: We have done really good grant applications before and we’ve provided really good citizenship programming before, so we didn’t see any reason why we wouldn’t receive the grant.

But that didn’t happen. While the total grant program remained about the same size – $9.4 million doled out to similar organizations all over the country – Skyline Literacy simply wasn’t among the recipients. Board members and staff say they’ve been told they’ll learn more about why Skyline didn’t get this funding, but so far, haven’t heard anything. In the meantime, they’ve already been making adjustments.

BILL FISHER: And at that point, we cut staff and limited our arrangement here in terms of space to squeeze into some smaller digs.

Bill Fisher is president of the Skyline Literacy board.

FISHER: We had a staff of five. Three full-time and two part-time, and we’re down to two full-time now. So we’ve cut costs where we can, but now we’re looking at the income side.

While Skyline still receives other government and foundation funding, Fisher says the organization needs around $100,000 in private donations to fund programming through next summer.

FISHER: We’ve reached out to the community, and some donations have come in. We expect that to continue through the end of the year. And at that point we’ll have to take an accounting of where we are and determine whether we can continue to go forward.

He’s hopeful that that approach will help Skyline make it through this rough financial patch, allowing it to continue assisting people like Ghaidaa Sabti settle in to their new homes in the Valley.

SABTI: I am very happy because Skyline helped me. Skyline helped my husband. It’s a very good school, I think. Skyline Literacy sent the tutor to my home. I think this is very, very good.

Here’s Spitz again.

SPITZ: I think we could all agree that every adult has a right to an education and a right to the opportunity to be a fully integrated and active member of their community. And I think that if we realize that this is a service that we want for our community – we want our immigrant and refugee families to have access to English and civics education – then folks will step up and do their part.