ASHLAND – For the staff, board members and clients of Advocates For Families, the new office at 270 Sandusky Street feels like home.
The local nonprofit agency moved there last month, following a turn of events that has left the organization’s leaders feeling deeply grateful, and more connected to the Ashland community than ever before.
The narrative involves many members of the community—donors, property owners, the local community foundation, and organization staff, board members and volunteers— each doing what they could to make the organization’s dream location a reality.
Advocating For Families
Founded in 1985 as Ashland Parenting Plus to help teen parents with their parenting skills, the organization has grown to offer a wide range of services in support of children, youth, parents and families.
The organization recently rebranded with the new name Advocates For Families to better reflect its mission and programming. Today, Advocates For Families employs more than 20 people and serves hundreds of clients each year. Services include Parent Support Services, Youth Intervention Mentoring, Teen Pregnancy Prevention and Family Wraparound services. The organization also runs the volunteer-based Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program to advocate on behalf of neglected and abused children in the juvenile court system.
Until its recent move to Sandusky Street, Advocates for Families did its work from rented office space at the Ashland County Service Center on Ohio 60. As a former nursing home and the site of the Ashland County-City Health Department, the location felt sterile and not particularly homelike.
A Community Effort
The story of the move began in early 2022, when Ashland County notified Advocates For Families its organization would need to move out of its rented space in the Ashland County Service Center by the end of last year. The county was preparing to sell the building to Ashland County-West Holmes Career Center and move its own health department and emergency management offices into the city.
“The board and myself looked at multiple locations,” Advocates For Families executive director Catherine Swope said. “We looked and looked, and the places available were very limited, and none of them were ADA compliant, so we were really struggling to find a space.”
Swope thought of the vacant building at 270 Sandusky Street—her former dentist’s office— and reached out to the building owner to express interest. She loved the location and the building enough that she communicated with the owner several times, but the asking price was too far out of reach.
While negotiating with the building owner, Swope reached out to Ashland County Community Foundation for support. ACCF President/CEO Jim Cutright tried several avenues to help the organization secure a low-interest loan. He ended up talking with local philanthropists Bob and Jan Archer, who graciously agreed to help with financing. But by then, the building owner had increased his asking price, and the deal fell through.
By October, organization leaders were feeling desperate. They reluctantly decided to sign a lease to rent a portion of the old Huntington Bank building in downtown Ashland. To get the amount of space they needed, they would have to settle for a disjointed office—half upstairs and half downstairs, with separate entrances and no client access to the upstairs portion.
While organization leaders were grateful to building owner Nate Crosby for his efforts to accommodate them, the space just wasn’t right.
“That Friday night, I was just tossing and turning and praying, saying, ‘I just don’t feel good about this rental. I don’t think this is the one,’” Swope recalled. “And the Lord was like, ‘Ask one more time.’”
So Swope reached out to the owner of the Sandusky Street building one more time, and he agreed to sell it for $300,000—less than half his initial asking price.
The organization had saved some money in reserves in preparation for the anticipated move, but not nearly enough to fund the purchase.
As Swope was visiting banks in a scramble to secure financing, Cutright called her into the Community Foundation’s office to tell her the good news. The Archers had decided to give Advocates For Families $150,000 toward the purchase of the building.
“I had such empathy for their situation, and felt compelled to try to help,” Cutright said. “The Archers are the heroes of this story, but I’m grateful that ACCF could play a role in facilitating this connection between caring donors and an important community need.”
Advocates For Families used their reserve dollars and took out a small, short-term loan for the remainder of the building cost. The organization was able to pay off the loan in just two months, so it now owns the building outright.
The organization gained occupancy of the building last November. Since then, more than 50 volunteers have spent more than 500 hours cleaning and remodeling the building to transform it from a dental office into a functional and comfortable space for Advocates For Families’ staff and clients.
“It really feels like the right place for us,” said Kim Tanner, Advocates For Families board president. “When I walk in here, I am overwhelmed with the feeling of this facility. It’s a very warm, inviting, welcoming place.”
Before laying the new flooring, organization leaders invited local pastors and community leaders to sign and write blessings on the subfloor, creating what Swope describes as a “solid foundation” for the space.
The building’s interior now has a comfortable, eclectic vibe, featuring donated items like doors and televisions from many community individuals and entities.
“We really just want to thank everyone who sacrificed to get us to this place,” Swope said, looking around the new office and marveling at the support of many community members who came together to make the move happen.
An Open House
In that spirit of gratitude, Advocates For Families is opening its doors for an Open House from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. March 29. Staff and volunteers look forward to inviting community partners, neighbors and the public in to see the new office and learn about the organization.
Tanner believes that even after decades in Ashland County, there’s a lack of knowledge in the community about what the organization does. But for Tanner, Advocates For Families seems like the embodiment of the popular quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
“Cynics will say, ‘well, what can I do? There’s nothing I can do,’” Tanner said. “But actually, there are things we can do that really matter. I’ve been involved with other nonprofits, served on other boards, but this one feels like our feet are on the ground in a different kind of way.”
Swope said above all, the organization strives to instill hope in its clients by believing in them and building up their strengths.
“What a cool job I have that I get to meet with people and see the good in them, and help them to see the good in themselves, especially when they’ve been told their whole lives that there’s nothing good in them,” she said.
Swope hopes that with the organization now in the heart of town, Ashland residents will come to see it as a place for everyone, free of stigma.
“We have folks from all walks of life,” she said. “It’s not just for bad kids or bad parents, it’s for anybody who wants to learn good decision-making skills, good life skills, and good parenting skills. We’re really for everybody.”
About Advocates For Families: Advocates For Families enhances the lives of families by educating and empowering parents; by promoting responsible decisions regarding parenthood; and by offering opportunities for children to learn, grown and mature in a nurturing environment.
About Ashland County Community Foundation: Ashland County Community Foundation advances philanthropy and improves the quality of life in Ashland County by connecting people who care with causes that matter. ACCF has awarded over $25 million in scholarships, grants and distributions.