Evelyn Ramirez, Somerset Elementary School first grade teacher, explains the memory game to the students.
First grade teacher Evelyn Ramirez explains a memory game to students in October 2018 at the Yes! Our Kids Can program at Somerset Elementary School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Yes! Our Kids Can, a local education nonprofit that applied advertising techniques to sell young students on high expectations for their future, will cease operations in June. The organization employed 12 staff members.

Lionel and Kathy Sosa founded the nonprofit in 2016 and worked with 10 school districts – eight in San Antonio, one in Harlingen, and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In its four years of operation, the nonprofit reached more than 10,000 students and 8,000 families, according to the nonprofit’s founder.

The economic downturn caused by coronavirus made school districts reprioritize spending, Lionel said Saturday.

When the nonprofit contacted school districts about how they could work together next academic year, the districts said their financial outlooks were uncertain and money would likely need to be spent elsewhere. Then, the nonprofit contacted foundations, who emphasized nonprofits must be able to maintain stable revenue for a viable future.

This response, coupled with the fact that foundations continue to shift funding to nonprofits serving more immediate needs like food, medicine, and shelter, meant Yes! Our Kids Can didn’t have a realistic way to support its $1.4 million annual budget.

“We have an important mission and that is to disrupt the cycle of generational poverty in this city. We are the poorest large city in America and we’ve been at the bottom for years,” Lionel said. “Coronavirus has just exacerbated that problem. So the problem we are out to solve just got bigger, but there isn’t the money to be able to look at the long-term solution because there are more important things to do.”

Lionel and Kathy decided to close the nonprofit and search for a partner who could continue offering the programming they had spent years developing. That search is still ongoing. They hope a national or statewide partner may be able to expand the reach of the program to even more kids.

In the meantime, the programming developed to encourage and uplift students will remain available for free on the nonprofit’s website for the next three years.

The demise of Yes! Our Kids Can is an indication of the difficulties nonprofits face during this economic downturn. With money shifting to fund the most immediate needs, some nonprofits may close.

“Running a nonprofit, I have found it’s like running naked through a cactus patch on fire. It’s not an easy thing to do,” Lionel said. “Not every nonprofit is going to survive this because there’s only so much money to go around and a lot of money that was planned for organizations has to be redirected to take care of immediate problems.”

Patricia Mejia, the San Antonio Area Foundation’s vice president for community engagement and impact, has been a first-hand witness of nonprofits’ need for support to stay alive.

Thus far, the Area Foundation has reviewed 250 applications from nonprofits seeking aid from the COVID-19 Response Fund. The foundation awarded about 160 groups with more than $5 million. About $6.3 million has been raised and more money will be disbursed in future days, Mejia said.

She described nonprofits as resilient, but not immune from the financial hardship that any other business or entity is going through.

“We’re all experiencing a significant impact because of coronavirus,” Mejia said. “What we do know is that, just like anything, it is going to take a village. It is going to take multiple different avenues to provide a lifeline.”

And as San Antonio residents are in more need for support than ever, nonprofits play a significant role in providing support, she added.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.