GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A former executive at a Grand Rapids nonprofit is denying accusations she embezzled from the organization.

“I worked for that agency night and day,” said Sharon Killebrew, who was fired in June from the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC). “I didn’t steal anything … I only billed for services I provided.”

Killebrew, 68, was tearful at times as she spoke to Target 8 on the porch of her home in northeast Grand Rapids.

“I’m just devastated,” said Killebrew. “My whole life is just devastated.”

Killebrew is one of two former ELNC leaders accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the agency, which provides funding, support services and advocacy for the early education of underserved children.

On Friday, the nonprofit filed suit against Killebrew and ELNC’s founder and former CEO, Dr. Nkechy Ekere Ezeh.

According to the lawsuit, both leaders were terminated over the summer following a “lengthy internal investigation” prompted by a whistleblower.

“The investigation revealed, among other things, that Ezeh had used a web of interrelated organizations to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to herself as well as to her family and friends — money that should have been used to support at-risk youth,” the lawsuit alleged. “But the wrongdoing extended far beyond Dr. Ezeh,” the suit continued, “For example, Sharon Killebrew, who handled ELMC’s bookkeeping, paid herself nearly $1,000,000 between June 2017 to April 2023 without ELNC Board’s knowledge.”

Killebrew, who denied paying herself, most recently served as the agency’s director of finance and administration.

But prior to accepting that position, she told Target 8 she’d provided ELNC with accounting services for years as a contractual employee, not a full-time employee.  

“(That was over) five or six years,” said Killebrew, referring to approximately one million dollars she’d received. “That included my pay. That was my salary, and I had people working for me that I paid out of that money.”

Killebrew said though the agency had as many as sixty employees at one point, she’d been overwhelmed in recent years because it lost key administrators, and the positions went unfilled.

“I was doing it all on my own,” she explained. “It was like when you’re trying to tread water and just keep the business afloat. I could have walked out at any time, and my family wanted me to and I’m like, ‘I can’t just desert them. They don’t have anybody there that can do this.'”

The lawsuit referenced an email in which Killebrew asked Ezeh for an additional $75,000 to cover her “unused PTO, and the additional responsibilities of Associate Director.”

According to the suit, Ezeh approved the payment the very next day without notifying the board.

Killebrew acknowledged that, in hindsight, the email request may have seemed unusual.

“There were some times I didn’t even know how far behind I was on my own finances,” explained Killebrew. “I was so in the forest, or in the trees, and so then, I’d start looking at things, and I’d say, ‘oh, wait a minute, this isn’t right.’ But everything that I invoiced was for time, for work that I did.”

As for Ezeh’s conduct, Killebrew said she knew the founder and CEO had created two new entities but had no idea she was using them to embezzle money.

“I thought it was odd, yes,” said Killebrew of the new companies Ezeh created. “(But) she was not supposed to be running it. She was supposed to be the incubator person, or the, ‘I’ll bring these people together and start this organization so we have a partner. I had no idea she was getting paid directly for them or paying anyone else.”

In March 2023, Ezeh allegedly paid her own brother a $45,000 “advance for planning purposes.”

The lawsuit reported that Ezeh’s brother had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Texas in March 2022.

“According to the (bankruptcy) petition, this was the second time (Ezeh’s brother) had filed for bankruptcy in a three-year span,” the lawsuit alleged, noting that he’d listed his occupation as “independent truck driver” and his monthly net income as $2,672.

The invoice Ezeh’s brother submitted to the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, described in the lawsuit as “rudimentary,” sought $45,000 for “Professional Development, Facilitation of New School year Retreat & Team Building… and Working with Black young Boys.”

The invoice promised that “Comprehensive plan and activities will be forthcoming.”

The lawsuit claimed Ezeh “surreptitiously funneled more than $178,500 from ELNC” through her entities, “and hundreds of thousands of more dollars … to her family and friends.”

No one answered the door at Ezeh’s Grand Rapids home, and no one responded to the note and business card Target 8 left at the door. 

“I can’t get into her head,” said Killebrew. “I’m so disappointed because she and I, that was another thing, we went way back. There was trust there.”

Killebrew said she started doing work for ELNC when Ezeh founded it in 2010.

ELNC has raised millions of dollars in the last decade — $17 million in 2021 alone according to the lawsuit — from high-profile foundations and the federal government, among other sources.

The organization distributed those dollars to partner agencies like Steepletown Neighborhood Services, the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, The Refugee Education Center and YWCA Kalamazoo, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said the agency’s future is uncertain because the alleged fraud “decimated” the organization, prompting resignations from board members and employees.

The door to the facility’s headquarters on Leonard Street NE was locked Monday and Tuesday. 

Despite the civil allegations of embezzlement, there’s no word of any criminal investigation.

“I just want it to go away,” said Killebrew of the accusations against her. “This has been heartbreaking because, like I said, I live a very simple life … and the only reason I was in it was because of the kids.”

Killebrew said she was using her skills, a bachelor’s degree in math and accounting, to fight for vulnerable children and families.

Now she’s fighting to clear her own name.