GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Blaming former administrators for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars and claiming one of them, its founder, has fled the country, a Grand Rapids nonprofit says it is going under.
The Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative — which offered early education funding and support services for underserved families — laid off its 30 employees Wednesday. Leaders said they had no other choice.
“We were just informed by our board chair that we are all being let go. It’s the last day of ELNC,” ELNC preschool education manager Megan Dillingham told Target 8 Wednesday morning. “So we’re pretty heartbroken: heartbroken for the staff here, heartbroken for the families that we serve and heartbroken for Grand Rapids. It’s a real loss.”
On Friday, ELNC filed a lawsuit against founder and former CEO Nkechy Ezeh and former director of finance Sharon Killebrew, accusing them of embezzlement and fraud. Both had already been fired.
“Since filing our lawsuit last week, our Board has identified hundreds of thousands of additional dollars that are missing from ELNC,” the agency’s attorney, Brian Lennon, said in a Wednesday statement.
He said some of the money was transferred to a company in Georgia with ties to Nigeria. Citing social media posts, Lennon said that Ezeh was in Nigeria on “an errand.”
The debt caused by the embezzlement, Lennon and ELNC Board Chair Amy DeLeeuw said, is insurmountable.
“The Board has worked for months to try and salvage operations, but the fraud runs too deep for the organization to recover,” DeLeeuw said in a statement. “We had no other choice but to close the doors.”
“We didn’t know about any of this,” an ELNC employee who asked to remain anonymous told Target 8 as she and her co-workers cleared out their desks.
She was worried, she said, for the families and children the group served.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the families and things,” the employee said. “Everything’s a big question mark. All we know is we’re done.”
Workers said they knew the lawsuit was going to be filed last week but were taken aback by the closure, saying it came without warning.
“We didn’t have an indication that we needed to shut down,” Dillingham said. “There was no communication from the board that we’re out of money or anything like that. It came as a surprise and a shock for all of us. On Friday, they told us to come and do our work on Monday as usual, so we had no idea that this was going to come to a head like this.”
Dillingham said she was concerned about paying her bills and “disappointed” by the “impersonal” and “cold” across-the-board layoffs.
“I really don’t know why it’s happening this way,” Dillingham said. “We received communication from our board, I believe it was back in April or May, that there was going to be an investigation. And since then, we’ve heard absolutely nothing from our board directly. And so I really don’t know what happened behind the scenes.”
In DeLeeuw’s statement, she said the board “understand(s) and share(s) the anger of ELNC employees, who have been betrayed by Nkechy Ezeh and Sharon Killebrew.”
“They masterminded an elaborate accounting scheme using a web of interrelated organizations to hide their financial misdeeds from the Board, employees and funders,” DeLeeuw wrote.
Lennon blamed Ezeh and Killebrew’s “greed,” saying it caused the closure, the layoffs and “jeopardized programming for children and families in West Michigan who depend on the early care and education programs ELNC funds.”
He said the group hopes its partners will be able to come up with other money to keep offering those programs.
“It is incomprehensible how anyone who claims to be committed to helping children and families could commit such brazen fraud,” Lennon wrote. “We are committed to doing everything in our power to seek restitution of the funds Nkechy and Sharon have stolen – and to see them brought to justice so they can atone for their misdeeds.”
Speaking to Target 8 at her Grand Rapids home earlier this week, Killebrew denied the allegations of embezzlement, saying she billed the company only for hours worked — either by her or by subcontractors she hired — and that everything she did was properly invoiced and approved by the board.
“I’m just devastated,” Killebrew said. “My whole life is just devastated.”
—Target 8 investigator Susan Samples contributed to this report.