MOUNT VERNON – A few days ago, now-retired Mount Vernon police Officer Mike McClaughry, who was shot in the head and blinded in December 2016, burst into joyous laughter as he walked a mile round trip.
Accompanied by Karen Mehlhorn, a white-cane trainer, “Officer Mike,” as he’s known in this city 60 miles north of Seattle, walked continuously across a couple of streets, never stopping. The journey was from the Starbucks inside the Safeway at East College Way all the way to Riverside Health Club.
“There were times when it was very difficult,” McClaughry says. “You get into a very dark place. You wonder, ‘Am I going anywhere with this?’ “
For 54 years, these were the kind of small victories made possible by Sight Connection, a Seattle nonprofit for the blind and vision-impaired. The agency provides medical care, counseling and a store for the blind.
Need a high-contrast computer keyboard with black letters on yellow background? It’s here. An extra-long oven mitt that provides protection up to the elbow, making baking and grilling safer? They have it. A digital recorder with only three buttons for ease of function – record, play/pause and delete? A talking watch? Yup.
But that is all about to come to an end not just for McClaughry, but 1,200 other individuals across seven Western Washington counties helped by Sight Connections. The money has run out for Sight Connection, and it will be shutting down June 28.
According to papers filed with King County Superior Court, in 2018 Sight Connection operated at a loss of $470,000 out of revenues of $1.1 million.
The documents outline the cause of the nonprofit’s demise: A combination of unforeseen financial hits and miscues by its volunteer board. As the organization’s finances plummeted, the board approved spending “its restricted endowment funds to the tune of more than $500,000 on operating expenses,” according to court papers.
The principal from the funds — there were two of them — could not be used; only money generated by investing the funds.
Sight Connection could have sought permission from a court, while also notifying the state Attorney General’s Office, to release the restrictions on the endowment funds. But it didn’t, according to the court papers.
“Nobody recognized this at the time,” says Frank Cordell, a Seattle attorney and a Sight Connection board member. “As soon as we learned what we should have done, we filed papers alerting the AG as to what had happened.”
In court papers, he blamed it on “a lack of sophistication.”
The volunteer board members include one who is totally blind, another with no vision in one eye and low vision in the other, one whose mother has been a client and another whose husband has been a customer at the store.
Sight Connection had a fundraiser on staff, but donors grew scarce, says Miles Otoupal, the interim CEO for the agency.
“It’s not terribly attractive or sexy to give money to a blind program,” he says. “Pardon the pun, but these people really are out of sight. We don’t have a large constituency.”
Until 2015, the nonprofit got about $150,000 from United Way. That stopped, says United Way spokesman Jared Erlandson, when the agency decided to focus on homelessness, getting students to graduate and “breaking the cycle of poverty.”
“We had to make a lot of tough decisions,” Erlandson says.
Then Sight Connection lost its contract to pick up clothes and used household items in 2016 with Savers Inc., which runs the Value Village thrift stores. That was a loss of over $197,000. Sight Connection collected the items from donors and got a percentage from Savers.
With the Savers contract ended, Sight Connection closed its donation center and laid off the staff. It owed $92,000 in state unemployment taxes. According to court papers, a new doctor at its low-vision clinic didn’t follow “administrative process” and $32,000 in Medicare funds were lost.
And then were $426,000 in moving costs when in 2017 Sight Connection moved from its Northgate location to North 130th Street and Aurora Avenue North. Court papers said that saved over $6,000 in reduced rent.
At the same time, a big portion of that amount — $336,000 — was spent on remodeling its new space.
A former financial consultant and an executive with the Archdiocese of Seattle Catholic charities, Otoupal, 76, volunteered a couple of years ago to help the nonprofit as it was plummeting toward disaster. Court records show he even donated $150,000 of his own money to help out.
“I’m not a wealthy man; I’m generous,” he says.
In a nonjudicial binding agreement filed in King County Superior Court over the misuse of endowment funds, the state Attorney General’s Office has barred the president of the board from serving on a nonprofit board for a year. In addition, seven current or former board members can’t serve on a nonprofit board until they have “completed a substantive training” on how nonprofits operate. The training has to be approved by the Attorney General’s Office, according to the agreement.
In the agreement, the Attorney General’s Office notes, “No individual benefited from these expenditures, which instead went toward legitimate operating expenses.” However, the AG also noted the board members “violated their statutory obligation to exercise due care as directors.”
Sight Connection agreed to dissolve no later than Aug. 31.
That has left the state, which funds help for the blind through state and federal grants, scrambling for a replacement.
“It’s really a shame,” says Lou Oma Durand, executive director of the state’s Department of Services for the Blind.
The agreement with the state also says that Sight Connection will transfer all its remaining assets to the nonprofit Seattle organization Lighthouse for the Blind, which provides employment, support and training opportunities for blind people.
But the latter doesn’t have a store for the blind, and it primarily focuses on vision-impaired people, whom it employs in data-entry, manufacturing and other jobs. The state hopes that somehow services provided by Sight Connection could continue under the Lighthouse for the Blind.
“No details have been worked out. We will do our best to provide whatever services we can manage to take over, and we don’t know what that will look like. It’s not going to be something that happens overnight,” says Melanie Wimmenauer, spokeswoman for the Lighthouse for the Blind.
And so the days are counting down.
Says McClaughry, “It’s sad. It’s really unfortunate.”