One of the city's longest-running programs for children might close its doors early next year after losing a great deal of funding in recent years.
Many Chattanooga natives may remember the Sesame Street-style puppets Chattanooga's Kids on the Block brought to their elementary schools to perform skits on a wide array of topics ranging from bullying to child abuse.
Matt Hodges is one of those Chattanooga natives.
Hodges remembers Kids on the Block coming to his elementary school, and he credits the organization's lessons with helping him speak out about his own history of abuse.
While a student here in the early 1990s, Hodges was molested by an administrator. The day after the incident, which occurred on a weekend school trip out of state, Hodges remembers telling his mother that something happened.
"Someone planted something in my head to tell someone when something happened," he said. "My parents didn't sit me down and have that conversation, my teacher didn't — so I can direct it to that group. To impact me in that way, it had to have been [Kids on the Block]."
For more than 38 years, Kids on the Block has led such conversations — on sex abuse, bullying, suicide, body image and so many more topics, in Hamilton and 15 surrounding counties. Last year, the Chattanooga group performed 486 programs free of charge and served 64,000 students, but now the organization's future is at risk.
The nonprofit operates with a small staff and a marginally small budget for the work they do.
"There are only seven of us," said Kelly Williams, executive director of Chattanooga Kids on the Block, including three professional puppeteers. The organization, a state-licensed child abuse prevention agency, costs about $250,000 a year to run.
However, the state changed its focus on child abuse prevention from child-focused education to adult education, and Kids on the Block lost about a $60,000 grant because the organization serves youth.
The non-renewal of a grant through the United Way and the loss of a corporate partnership because of the relocation of Kraftworks has further dented the organization's budget.
"Unfortunately for the past few years we have been hit with some unexpected and some pretty severe funding cuts," Williams said. "They were over half — about 75 percent — of our funding, and we were fortunate to have reserved funds, but those have since been exhausted."
Williams worries that many don't understand the unique purpose that the organization's programs serve to raise awareness among children about important topics in a safe, non-intimidating way.
"The most unique thing for us and difficult for adults to really understand unless they've seen a program is that we're non-threatening," Williams said. "Children don't have a problem relating to the puppets because they feel that they are their buddies they can tell them secrets, good secrets and bad secrets."
Hodges also worries that the loss of the organization will leave a noticeable gap in the community.
"These are important conversations," Hodges said. "Without [Kids on the Block], we are missing an opportunity to put that in front of kids how many more kids are going to get hurt and have to deal with that?"
Earlier this year, Hodges partnered with Kids on the Block to attempt to raise funds and awareness for the organization by telling his story.
The 38-year-old, who returned to Chattanooga after college, made a video of his story that was shared on social media and raised several thousand dollars.
At the time, Hodges was also personally dealing with ramifications of his abuse. Though Hodges' abuser, Jeffrey Barton, was fired from McCallie School after the incident, he went on to work at the Army and Navy Academy and Carlsbad military boarding school in California — where he abused other boys.
"I carry a lot of guilt," Hodges said. "A lot of kids got hurt after me." Over the course of several years, after California police tracked Hodges down in Chattanooga, he testified against his abuser on three different occasions.
"From the get-go, a lot of people were surprised I came out and talked about [my abuse], everyone asks me why," Hodges said. "A lot of people I knew in Chattanooga though reached out to me and said [Kids on the Block] saved my life. It speaks to the value of the organization."
"I will do anything to help CKOB and organizations like this, that are taking care of children," he added.
Because of the sensitive issues that the organization deals with, oftentimes children share things with the puppets that they might not have ever shared with anyone else.
"They feel absolutely comfortable talking to these puppets, getting those feelings, those questions out," said Wendy Davis, one of the organization's full-time puppeteers. "We do get disclosures occasionally sometimes it is the first time they've opened up to someone about it."
Last year, the organization reported seven disclosures to Tennessee's Department of Children Services, meaning that a child told a puppet or wrote a letter and said they were being abused, had been abused or there was a red flag, Williams said.
This year, since August, the organization has reported another seven disclosures.
"A child who is experiencing some type of abuse may not tell an adult or may be to the point that they think it is normal," Williams said. "They need to know how to talk about it and how to tell someone. We can be the first stop."
Not all of the topics the puppets present are as dark as child abuse, though. The programs include ones on disability awareness — such as understanding and accepting someone with autism or spina bifida — and on health and wellness issues such as sun, heat and water safety or personal hygiene.
"There are sensitive issues, they are being entertained, but they are also talking about important issues," Davis said. "We throw a lot of humor in [the programs]. We encourage the kids to laugh if they want."
It costs about $500 a day, or $5 per child, for Chattanooga Kids on the Block to put on a program, which they provide to schools free of charge. The programs are directed toward students in grades kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as high school.
In fact, the organization has studied the impact it has had on local high schoolers.
"This past year we surveyed about 250 high school students in different schools to see if they remember a CKOB program," Williams said. "Eighty-seven percent of those children surveyed said that they did remember CKOB and it actually stopped them from doing something that they shouldn't have or it made them just think about making wiser decisions."
This holiday season, as it has for more than 30 years, the organization is holding a holiday gift wrap fundraiser at Hamilton Place mall. More than 300 volunteers have given their time since the first Friday in December to wrap holiday presents for donations.
In previous years, the annual event has raised anywhere from $18,000 to 30,000, according to Williams.
This year she hopes it's more.
"Like any nonprofit organization, everyone is looking in the same pot, so we try to be creative. The gift wrapping is our only fundraiser right now," Williams said. "We're willing to partner with any organization, and I think that's the only way that nonprofits are going to grow and to exist is to stop trying to reinvent the wheel each time but add a spoke and work together."
Volunteers are located in the mall outside JCPenney and Dillard's Women's store during the mall's regular hours. They will be there until the mall closes today.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.