By Marty Coleman-Hunt, Interim Director of Woolman and Sierra Friends Center
I have a dear friend who always likes to call attention to the “problem with a gift in its pocket.” These times have certainly challenged all of us to look for that gift. In early March, I came on staff as Director of Operations for Woolman at Sierra Friends Center, and before I filled out my onboarding paperwork, I was forced to quarantine at home as Woolman shut down. We cancelled all youth programs, camps, and retreats. We closed the campus. Our income dwindled to next-to-nothing. We cut costs by more than 50%. Thanks to the generosity of donors, federal relief programs, and a few residential renters we have enough resources to maintain the property and consider how to proceed committed to our mission of stewarding learning communities, with Quaker values – which is so necessary in these trying times. We are anticipating a prolonged shut-down of all residential youth programs. However, we have options that we are sharing with our community of alumni, Friends and supporters.
Woolman is closing on its 60th anniversary. Three generations of alumni lived on this Sierra watershed land in a community dedicated to peace, justice and environmental sustainability. For many years, Woolman has struggled financially. The costs of running a residential, secondary school has become very expensive. We could never charge what the true costs are. For this reason, Woolman ran into debt and could not invest in the upkeep of 44 buildings, on a 30-acre working farm campus, within 200 acres of forested open space. When something broke, a generous donor or a helpful lender was always there to finance the repair. But today, we can no longer sustain the debt combined with the cost of supporting an aging campus. Then came Covid-19.
Working with an ad hoc group of financial experts from the Ministry and Oversite Committee of College Park Quarterly Meeting, we identified that real estate was our strongest asset and it was worth three times more than the debt. If only there was a way to leverage that equity to pay off the debt, finance camp upgrades, establish financial reserves, and continue with our mission. Early on, our board set three goals: continue to deliver mission-centric program; protect the land from subdivision or development; and make sure everyone who loaned us money is repaid.
Talking with a real estate broker we learned the land is worth $3m and appreciating. We are looking for a F/friendly buyer or group of buyers to acquire this beautiful Sierra foothills land and give us a long-term leaseback to manage the property and continue with our mission. In effect, we are severing the ownership of Sierra Friend Center – the land, from Woolman – the programs. Woolman would move forward with a “Sierra Friends Center, LLC” as a partner and rent-paying tenant. Our business plan demonstrates if we reduce operating cost we will be able to proceed with broader mission of educational and enrichment programs for youth, adults, families and communities.
If no F/friendly buyer emerges, we will sell the property with a conservation easement that permanently protects it from development. We will then reform Woolman in another location with the proceeds from the sale. Woolman will not go bankrupt or lay down. Our alumni and community of supporters will not let this happen. We feel this with a deep sense of obligation and gratitude. The feedback we have gotten from alumni and supporters makes my heart sing. People who consider Woolman a place that changed their lives are helping with ideas, connections and offers of support.
We will move into a new future – as so many organizations will, after the Covid crisis has run its course. I am confident that we will be stronger with a new beginning, and that is the gift in the pocket of these difficult, problematic times.
If you are interested in learning more or helping, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.