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Boys Ranch Trying To Run On Private Funds But Getting Off The Public Dole Means Cutbacks And Fierce Competition For Donations

The mood at the Morning Star Boys Ranch is subdued.

Boys, ages 10 to 16, still ride bikes and horses, create elaborate art projects and do chores. They still follow a strict schedule: breakfast at 7, dinner at 5:30 and lights out at 10:30.

But there are only 12 boys at the ranch for troubled children on Glenrose Prairie.

Morning Star sent away more than a dozen boys last spring and laid off half the staff when the state cut $600,000 from its annual budget.

While staff reeled from the cuts, the Rev. Joe Weitensteiner, director of the boys home, decided it was time to get off the public dole and run the charity on private donations.

The government, he said, is no longer a reliable source of income.

With that decision, the well-known boys home joins a growing number of charities accepting the popular conservative challenge of trading government money for private support.

Private money is the future of non-profit organizations, said Paul Virun, an insurance representative who works with charities.

“The federal government is saying to the state, ‘You take care of your own.’ And the state is saying to the community, ‘You take care of your own,”’ said assistant director Buck Rogers.

But making the leap from taxpayer to private money won’t be easy. Morning Star needs a $15 million endowment to make ends meet.

As government continues cutting back, the scramble for charity dollars will be furious over the next decade, Virun said.

“Those that get on early are going to get the lion’s share of the benefits,” he said. “Those who wait are going to get behind the eight ball.”

Nearly all charities that cater to the poor get the bulk of their budgets from taxpayers.

Even religious-based programs like Catholic Charities receive 65 percent of their money from the government.

To replace the state money, Morning Star must add $10 million to its endowment over the next decade.

The interest from that, plus the $5.4 million already in the endowment, would provide about $1 million a year, enough care for 30 boys.

Weitensteiner and Rogers assembled a committee of bankers, lawyers and stock brokers dedicated to raising the cash.

While $10 million is a hefty sum, it’s not unheard of.

Supporters of a proposed Pacific Science Center in Riverfront Park also are trying to raise $10 million. The Cheney Cowles Museum wants to raise $50 million for expansion. Both of those organizations are asking for taxpayer support, as well as seeking private donations.

“We are all competing for the same few dollars,” said David Walker, vice president of U.S. Bank and a member of the newly formed Morning Star fund-raising committee. “Selling candy isn’t going to do it.”

Morning Star ran on private donations when it first opened. Charity teas, raffles and annual fund-raisers provided the money it needed. Big donations, mainly from wills and estates, went into the endowment.

“It took 38 years to get it up to $5 million,” Rogers said of the endowment. “We’re going to see if the next $10 million comes in a little faster.”

In the competition with other charities, Morning Star has the added advantage of its good record and the Rev. Weitensteiner - better known as Father Joe, Virun said.

The ranch has been a career for Weitensteiner.

When it opened in 1957, he was a 24-year-old counselor who had just been named Spokane scoutmaster of the year. He ran the ranch for several years until he left to study for the priesthood.

He always returned in the summers. After his ordination in 1966, the bishop made him Morning Star director.

At its largest, the ranch was home to more than 50 boys. They lived in dormitories and in the original house, which is now leased to Daybreak, a treatment center for drug and alcohol addicted teens.

It’s hard to say how Morning Star moved from entirely private money to 70 percent taxpayer support, the priest said.

“As the director, I got a little bit lazy,” he said. “These funds were coming in and I said, ‘I only have to come up with about $800 per boy each month.’ Which is a lot better than $3,000.”

Weitensteiner said the renewed emphasis on private money will be an adjustment.

“We were very gentle in our approach in the past,” he said of the fund-raising efforts. “What we need to do now is let people know we’re not ashamed to accept funds.”

What Morning Star needs is big money. They certainly won’t turn down $1,000 donations. But they’re after $100,000.

Who has that kind of money to give? Dead people.

“We are looking at planned giving, like wills and trusts,” said Terry Kelly, an attorney at Lukins & Annis and a member of the development committee. “Morning Star has a wonderful tradition of annual supporters, but they tend to be on the modest side.”

If those supporters were to name the ranch in their wills, millions of dollars would pour in over the next several decades, he said.

It’s a practice universities have been using for years, said Virun, who was the development director for Whitworth College before joining the Principal Financial Group, an insurance agency.

Over the next 20 years, older Americans will pass on between $6 trillion and $8 trillion to their heirs, he said. More than a third will go to the government in taxes.

With proper planning, Virun said parents can ensure their children will get a portion of the estate and charities can get the rest, rather than the government.

“Would you want the IRS to be your chosen charity?” he asked.

Weitensteiner said that in hindsight, state cutbacks this year were a needed signal for the boys ranch to look elsewhere for money.

In the meantime, the quieter life at Morning Star this summer is a welcome change.

“They are having a great summer out there,” he said of the boys. “So really it’s not all bad.”

For now, the priest said he will continue to focus on the boys and pray for the dozens who are turned away from the ranch every month.

After next year, when he retires from his other job at St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish and School in Hillyard, Weitensteiner said he will devote himself to raising the $10 million.

“I’m kind of scared to death to get into that,” he confessed. “If this is supposed to happen, it will. But it means a lot of stress.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo


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