Rocky Relationship

In Picture Rocks, Pima County and a nonprofit helping the needy part abruptly

An elderly man, who had been chatting amiably with three women at the new home of Picture Rocks Community Center Inc., put it best: Sometimes, divorce is the only option when differences are too great.

Nonprofit group Picture Rocks Community Center Inc. called off its relationship with the Pima County-owned Picture Rocks Community Center in early October. According to the group's executive director, Bobbie Donohue, the friction that resulted from heavy-handed county interference was too much to bear.

"We saw the writing on the wall," said Donohue, who quit her county job so she could focus solely on leading the group's programs as an unpaid volunteer. "They were trying to get rid of us, so we left."

The group now provides its services on a dusty lot not far from the community center in Picture Rocks, a rural area northwest of Tucson. Mobile Mini storage units contain donated clothes and household items that are cheaply priced--or free of charge for the especially needy.

Group volunteers also hand out free bread and produce every day and provide emergency food boxes under the auspices of the Community Food Bank, among other programs.

The group had been operating out of the community center since 1990 for an annual rent of $1. According to Donohue, the county maintained a relatively hands-off approach with them until 2001, when Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, which oversees the community center, was reorganized.

Donohue recited a long list of perceived grievances against the county after 2001, including undue credence given to complaints against her and her spouse, one of which led to the banning of her husband from the community center; insistence that she show up to work despite having just suffered a near-fatal episode of respiratory arrest; meddling with the implementation of the group's clothing bank that slashed their profits; and competition for space with county programs.

She also said a grant program that had consistently funded the group failed to do so in 2005 after coming under the control of Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation.

"I call it BBS," Donohue said about the group's problems. "You know what BS stands for. Well, put bureaucratic in front of it."

According to Donohue, Joe Barr, recreation superintendent for Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, told the group's seven-person governing board that their programs weren't as relevant anymore, as people with higher incomes were moving into the Picture Rocks area. Barr denied saying that.

Willa Grandel, who has been volunteering with the group for about eight years, said their activities are necessary.

"A lot of them who come in really are needy people, and really need the services--not just the thrift store, but the other services we provide," she said. "They really need that, and it's nice to know they have a place to come to."

Jean Fox, agency relations manager for the Community Food Bank, said the group has consistently given out emergency food boxes to an average of about 225 individuals per month for at least the past two years.

For their part, county employees saw the group's move as a necessary one. "They needed more room," said Carol Bondurant, who provides office support at the community center. "They just decided to move to a larger space."

The group's clothing bank "just mushroomed into taking over the building," said Teresa Miller, a former employee at the center who was subbing for her daughter in one of the children's programs. There weren't any hard feelings as far as she could tell, Miller said; there just wasn't enough room to accommodate programs for the group and the county in the community center's limited space.

Barr said the group's move caught the county by surprise.

"They really didn't communicate a whole lot with us," Barr said. "We knew there were some issues. They decided to leave without notice. We're just taking them at face value that they'd like to move on and do something different."

Barr said there are a lot of new developments at the community center, and that it was important to try and get as many people using the center as possible.

An attractive new park next to the center, worth $1.4 million, was dedicated last month. The county projects it will break ground on a $2 million pool in the spring of 2006, Barr said.

"What we want to do is maximize what goes on in the buildings," he said.

According to Barr, the complaints against Donohue and her husband were evaluated "in the context in which they occurred."

"They were doing a difficult job, you know?" he said. "Sometimes, people would get bent out of shape over who got served first or who got which items. Some of those complaints were legitimate, and we worked on resolving those. I didn't get a sense the (group's governing) board was causing problems."

Of Donohue, Barr said: "She's brought a lot into that community, and probably will continue to do so in the future."

It seems clear that Donohue intends to keep plugging away at the problems faced by the needy, despite being hooked up to an oxygen tank after her lungs failed in April. Several people who've known her for years described her as a direct woman who is deeply committed to helping the community.

"The board gave me a shirt that came into the thrift store that says, 'I am the bitch'--not 'a bitch'--'I am the bitch, and it's Ms. Bitch to you,'" Donohue said. "I've been called that for many, many, many years. I'm aggressive; I tell the truth, I'm not afraid to confront people."

And now the group's job might be a little easier, she said, because they no longer have to deal with "BBS."

"We just want to provide for the people who need services," Donohue said. "I don't care about the rich people; I don't care about the well-to-do. They can go to Wal-Mart and buy their clothes; they can go to Fry's and buy their groceries. But there are a lot of people out here who can't."

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