Mary Hernandez

Mary Hernandez stands for a photo with racks of books at Parents, Let's Unite For Kids on North 32nd Street on Thursday. At the beginning of July, PLUK lost a large portion of its federal funding as grants dried up.

The nonprofit support group PLUK, which helps parents of children with special needs across Montana, has drastically cut its staff and changed executive directors after a handful of state and federal grants ceased their funding. 

PLUK, or Parents, Let's Unite for Kids, has seen its annual operating budget drop over the past two years from $645,000 to $250,00, forcing it to cut its 20 full-time positions down to four.

"As you can imagine, it's had a large, negative impact on the organization," said Mary Hernandez, PLUK's interim executive director.

Hernandez was brought on by the group's executive board three weeks ago to help steer PLUK through the current financial crisis. Roger Holt, who had been executive director since 2007, stepped down. 

As a nonprofit, PLUK is almost completely reliant on federal and state grants for its operating budget. The amount of federal funding for many of the programs PLUK supports has shrunk in the past few years and there are more organizations applying for them. Montana, with its small, rural population, struggles to stand out. 

"Montana has a hard time demonstrating its impact on people because of our rural population," Hernandez said. 

A similar program in Chicago, for example, can affect more special needs kids than there are in the entire state of Montana. So a big-city program becomes the priority. 

"Rural nonprofits are really challenged with having to compete with more populous states," she said. 

PLUK assists families who have children with special needs by helping them connect with support systems, navigate the public school system and access resources that teach how to parent a child with physical or mental challenges. 

Ultimately, the organization's goal is help families learn to advocate for themselves. 

"We will continue to serve families across the state," Hernandez said. 

While it works to restructure with its new, limited resources, phone calls to PLUK won't be returned until Aug. 15. Hernandez is eager to have some services up and running by mid-August; the start of the school year is a busy time for the organization. 

"We do a lot of work helping with IEPs," or individualized education programs, Hernandez said. 

IEPs are a collaborative process between administrators, educators, experts and parents designed to help account for students’ special needs. It's a process that can be stressful, particularly if a parent and child have never gone through it before. 

Hernandez said she'll be relying on the remaining PLUK staff, which she described as "amazingly talented." The four remaining full-time positions at PLUK will be covered by eight part-time employees. 

"This group is the most gracious group of people ever in accepting such challenging news," she said. "Their dedication to our kids and families is simply amazing."

Moving forward, PLUK will move toward securing more community support for its programs, taking donations and holding various fundraisers. Donations can be made to the group's Families Empowerment Fund. 

"PLUK is still available," Hernandez said. "We fully intend to keep with our work."

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.