When Spurwink Services, the largest social service organization in Maine, bought the Game Loft in 2009, it was heralded as a good thing for all involved. But financial troubles recently forced the parent company to cut funding to the Belfast-based program by roughly one-third, and while neither party is expressing any regrets about their relationship, the news has left the Game Loft searching for a next move.

Uncertainties aren’t new for the Game Loft. For most of the decade prior to merging with Spurwink, the program subsisted on sometimes-unreliable government funding, donations and volunteer labor. The rewards were mostly spiritual in nature, and the finances always tenuous.

By 2009, founders Patricia and Ray Estabrook, along with alumni who later came aboard as employees, were as passionate as ever about the mission of the Game Loft, but felt increasingly worn down by the administrative hassles. Spurwink took over the bookkeeping, grant writing and fundraising, allowing the Game Loft crew to, in Patricia Estabrook’s words, “perfect the model.”

“We thought our ship had come in,” she said. “We were one of the smallest service providers and we were merged with the largest social service organization in the state.”

Spurwink added $40,000 per year to the Game Loft’s operating budget and the program’s offerings expanded proportionately. Over the next two years membership doubled. The program, according to the Estabrooks, is unique in the country, and the new funding helped them inch closer to making what Ray described as a “playbook” for groups around the country — many of which have sought out the Game Loft — that wanted to start similar programs.

The recent loss of funding will reduce the Game Loft’s $129,000 budget by about one-third, returning the bottom line to pre-Spurwink levels. But the Game Loft is operating on a different scale than it was in those days. As a consequence, the staff anticipates major cuts to many important services.

“This is a volatile time for social services, but it’s a time when the poverty rate is rising,” said Estabrook.

The Game Loft serves meals that some members depend on for basic nourishment, and offers a family-like stability that some of the participating youths don’t have at home. As Estabrook sees it, taking away any of the pieces can jeopardize the sense of security they have been able to foster.

For now the Game Loft has let go half of its administrative and kitchen staff. Three part-time employees took cuts in hours and Estabrook said she took a cut in pay. The Game Loft will no longer be providing transportation (typically giving members rides home) and has canceled its food service on Thursdays.

Spurwink Services President Dawn Stiles said Wednesday, Dec. 28 that the organization, which gets the majority of its revenue from fee-for-service programs for emotionally troubled youths, has suffered from reductions in government rates and the number of contracts. All of Spurwink’s programs are seeing similar cuts, she said.

For most of its 50-year history, the Portland-based nonprofit dealt almost exclusively in treatment programs, but Stiles said the decision was made around five years ago to invest in prevention programs, buying up four programs including the Game Loft.

The idea was to try to keep young people out of the costlier treatment programs, Stiles said. Prevention programs are typically reliant upon grants, which are less predictable, but Spurwink was able to shift money from programs that generated more money to those like the Game Loft.

What Spurwink got in return was name recognition in the community and an association with successful prevention programs. With regard to the Game Loft, Spurwink applied a light touch. The program was already known and respected locally and Stiles said Spurwink didn’t want to distort that image, by spotlighting the Spurwink name.

“I think some people see us as a big Portland-based organization rather than a community organization that the Game Loft is,” she said. “And in reality we’re helping to support it.”

With regard to the recent cuts, Stiles said the hope is that the economy improves and that funding can be restored to all of Spurwink’s programs. Asked if the organization had considered divesting itself of the Game Loft, she said there was no plan to do so.

Whether a rising tide lifts the two organizations with their relationship intact or the Game Loft becomes an asset in some future Spurwink fire sale remains to be seen, but the principals of the Game Loft are trying to remain optimistic.

Ray Estabrook said he wants to continue to work with Spurwink, but conceded that he doesn’t know where the chips will fall. The parent organization has loosened the reins slightly in terms of how much money the Game Loft can raise on its own, he said. Several at the Game Loft described the change as something akin to: we can’t help you right now, so go for it.

The Game Loft’s administrative services continue to be managed by Spurwink, but in the absence of the additional funding offered by the parent organization, at least two people affiliated with the Game Loft independently expressed uncertainty about how much of their renewed fundraising efforts would go toward paying for these.

Stephen Colby, a high school junior and Game Loft member for the last six years, said Spurwink has been good for the Game Loft, in part because the organization took the stress off the Estabrooks. In light of the anticipated cuts, he said it was still a good thing that the organizations partnered, but his description of the past two years carried a ring of too-good-to-be-true.

“Everything was going up,” he said. “The amount of games, the safety level, the amount of kids that were coming … everything was being approved by Spurwink.”

“It was getting better too,” said Dakota Wing, also a high school junior, who has been coming to the Game Loft for two-and-a-half years.

Game Loft members spoke positively about Spurwink. But most seem to have also considered the possibility that their beloved program could be a casualty of some future downsizing.

For now, the Game Loft is riding out the storm as it always has, with creativity and a booster spirit. Members like Colby and Wing have been speaking to local organizations about the situation, and others have come up with fundraising ideas.

“If people knew everything about what the Game Loft did, I don’t think we’d have a problem getting funding,” said Wing. “But we’re just a small enough organization that they don’t, and we’re not.”

Patricia Estabrook said her long-term goal is to make the program pay for itself and “get out of the begging business.” Selling the Game Loft model would be one way to do that. Other ideas have included a workforce training program or an in-house game publishing business run by youth members.

“We’re still with Spurwink for the foreseeable future and we’re hoping Spurwink and the Game Loft can survive,” she said.

Others who spoke on behalf of the Game Loft made similar statements of solidarity that despite everyone’s best efforts sounded faintly rehearsed.

In each case, a more confident prediction was quick to follow — one seemingly based on experience and a personal belief in the program.

“No matter what happens with Spurwink, the Game Loft will survive,” Estabrook said. ” … There is nothing else that does what we do the way we do it.”

The Game Loft is currently seeking donations to restore programs and staffing. As of Jan. 4, the program had received a contribution that will restore the Thursday meal, but a large gap still needs to be filled. Estabrook added that the program can always use volunteer help.

For more information contact Patricia or Ray Estabrook: 322-3229