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When trouble comes

In retrospect, Robin Nelson says, the 6-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot mansion on acreage south of Hockinson tends to give people the wrong idea.
/ Source: The Vancouver Columbian

Hockinson, Wash. In retrospect, Robin Nelson says, the 6-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot mansion on acreage south of Hockinson tends to give people the wrong idea.

"Everybody who drives up here and looks at it tends to think to themselves, 'Why would these people need any money?' " said Nelson, executive director of Grace Ministries.

Those people would be wrong. After eight years of efforts to help young, homeless mothers escape the whirlpool of poverty, the nonprofit organization Nelson founded in 1999 is, like Nelson herself, mortgaged to the gills and facing calamity.

If $15,000 isn't found to pay the mortgage by next week, Nelson said Monday, the house bought for $2.2 million in 2006 will have to be sold.

That was the year when, flush with private grants and determined to help more girls, Nelson double-mortgaged her own house in Walnut Grove to realize her vision of opening the county's only 24-hour, nonprofit day care.

Even if they can pay this month's mortgage, they don't know how they'll meet next month's.

"We had a very big dream and a very big idea, and we knew it was going to work," said Nelson, 48. "We just didn't know it would be so hard."

It's a dramatic turnaround for the group, which has been a shooting star in Clark County's constellation of behind-the-scenes charities that build their missions in the gaps between government services.

With grants and private donations, Nelson and longtime program director Kris Eikenbary quintupled their group's revenue from $28,000 in 2001 to $167,000 in 2005.

They've never spent extravagantly on staff. Today, all four of their full-timers, including Nelson, live on-site. Their salaries and those of two part-timers total less than $60,000 a year.

Nelson pays herself a monthly salary of $800, which she donates back to the group to fund a horse therapy program, a service she says works miracles for girls who've been abused and find it hard to trust animals larger than themselves.

In December, everything seemed to fall apart. First, in the wake of a Columbian investigation involving unlicensed child care facilities, state regulators told them that they would no longer look the other way as their center operated without a license.

Then the group had to pay $16,000 in fees to Clark County for permits to use the building as a child care center.

Then, devastatingly, Mission Increase of Portland turned down a grant that they'd counted on to bring in $70,000.

Nelson said they'd been working on the county permits for a year, and that she hadn't realized the extent of state regulation of child care.

"They turned a blind eye, because they knew that our program was really solid and good," she said. "We had no idea that we were doing anything that was not right. ? Our hearts have been very pure about this."

Nelson, who works nights as a hospice nurse, has seen dozens of young women come and go. Her rules are clear: Everyone must attend classes, earn a driver's license and, if she has a young child, learn to give it the love and care that many of this house's residents never had.

Working with a counselor who comes every Monday, each young woman makes a plan to eventually leave.

Nelson's faith in them is fierce.

"These girls who are coming out of poverty ? everybody else would call them 'throwaway,' " she said. "They are going to change that generational course of poverty for their children."

But when they leave the ministry's orbit and have to deal with single motherhood on their own, things often break down.

"Eight years of this, you think, 'How many of these girls survive?' " Nelson said. "And most of them haven't. This is the problem."

The problem, Nelson is convinced, is child care. To qualify for federal aid, she says, a young mother must both go to school and look for work - leaving their children in the hands of ignorant or untrustworthy boyfriends, or worse.

Even if they find a job, she says, it's a service-sector job.

"Our girls don't work eight to five, Monday to Friday," Nelson said. "We need a day care that will continue weekends and evenings, or they won't be working."

Opening that day care was Nelson's dream and prayer. Things don't look good.

"People say, 'Why weren't things run more efficiently?' " Nelson said. "I wish to God that they had been. I wish there were people in this community who would step in and say, 'Let me take this off your hands.' "

But there weren't.

So, barring a miracle, Nelson says they'll move out of the home that seemed to come to them like a gift from God.

That'll mean walking away from the horse barn that Manor Homes of Vancouver built for them last year, free of charge. From the $16,000 they sunk into county permits last year. From the $25,000 of pro bono planning work by MacKay and Sposito of Vancouver.

Whatever happens, Eikenbary said, they won't turn out the five young women, ages 18 to 21, and their children who live there today.

"We will never let our girls go that are here," Eikenbary said. "We will do what it takes to get a new place."