GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — On Grand Rapids’ southwest side Thursday afternoon, a classroom of carefree 4-year-olds scampered and squealed on a well-groomed playground.
The Early Learning Center on Vries Street SW helps 64 children, ages 3 and 4, gain skills they’ll need heading into kindergarten.
The center is one of several early childhood programs that received funds and support through the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, the nonprofit that shut down amid allegations two former leaders embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The now-defunct agency, ELNC, once operated the Early Learning Center directly, but Steepletown Neighborhood Services took over its management a year ago.
“Truthfully, there hasn’t been a hiccup with operations here,” Dick Bulkowski, executive director of Steepletown, said, referring to the impact of ELNC’s closure.
That’s because Bulkowksi had already taken steps to reroute the state funding the program receives. Great Start Readiness Program dollars that used to flow through ELNC will now take a more direct path to the southwest side childhood education center.
“We have a direct contract now with the Kent Intermediate School District,” Bulkowski explained, predicting a smooth transition with no services lost.
Several agencies were scheduled to meet Friday afternoon and collaborate on how to protect critical early childhood programs in underserved neighborhoods in the wake of ELNC’s shutdown.
The embattled agency’s partners included Steepletown Neighborhood Services, the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, the Refugee Education Center and the YMCA, among others. ELNC was also working on early childhood programming in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.
The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, which operates the La Escuelita preschool, declined to comment on how ELNC’s closure might impact its program.
The YMCA of Grand Rapids said it is continuing to provide services to the16 children in its Head Start Program.
“While ELNC’s closure has both financial and collaborative impacts on our community’s childcare support system, we are identifying ways to overcome any short-term financial constraints while continuing consistent care,” wrote Jamie Scaffidi, chief operating officer of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids.
ELNC was also slated to provide early childhood education services in the Boston Square Community Hub, which is currently under construction. Amplify GR, the organization overseeing the hub’s creation, told Target 8 it’s seeking a new provider.
“The recent information does not change our plans to provide early childhood education within this state-of-the-art facility,” Amplify GR said in a statement to Target 8. “Early childhood education has been a key priority voiced by neighbors for many years. Amplify GR is committed to providing increased access to high-quality education for children in the Boston Square community.”
Two other programs more closely tied to ELNC’s embezzlement scandal have already closed their doors: the Explore and Learn Academy on Sigsbee Street SE and the International Preschool of the Arts on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue SW. Both preschools were initiatives of Global Open Learning and Development Inc., one of the entities set up by ELNC’s founder and former CEO, Nkechy Ekere Ezeh.
The Kent Intermediate School District and First Steps Kent said in a Friday release that they were taking over contracts for preschool at four community organizations and said they are also working with other providers to “absorb other ELNC services.”
“We share in the sadness and disappointment many people across the community feel right now,” Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler said in a statement. “Our priority is making sure young children have access to the quality early education they need and deserve and are not negatively impacted by this situation.”
According to a lawsuit filed against Ezeh and former finance director Sharon Killebrew, Ezeh used GOLD to funnel money from ELNC into her own pocket, as well as those of family and friends.
Bulkowski of Steepletown said despite the stunning allegations, Ezeh’s vision for early childhood education in vulnerable communities made a difference.
“In 2010, when Dr. Ezeh convened eight community-based organizations, there was a real gap in services for certain neighborhoods,” Bulkowski explained. “It was determined at that time that 85% of kids entering kindergarten weren’t ready. Dr. Ezeh in her work saw an opportunity and a need and responded, brought the right people together. The ELNC has been a strong partner around many community tables around early childhood education.”
Bulkowksi called the recent developments “unfortunate” and said he feels badly for the 30 ELNC employees who lost their jobs when the nonprofit shut down permanently.
“The staff they had, there were some very good people,” Bulkowksi said. “Very capable folks who did some great work.”
Jake Lancaster was among the ELNC employees who suddenly found themselves jobless.
“They gave us less than four hours’ notice,” Lancaster said, referring to Wednesday’s announcement — via Zoom — that workers had to clean out their desks by 3 p.m. “It’s just awful, and this is the best group of people I’ve ever been around.”
Lancaster wondered why it took a whistleblower to prompt an investigation: Why didn’t the Board of Directors notice the alleged embezzlement sooner? ELNC Board President Amy DeLeeuw addressed employees’ disappointment in a statement Wednesday.
“We understand and share the anger of ELNC employees, who have been betrayed by Nkechy Ezeh and Sharon Killebrew,” DeLeeuw wrote. “They masterminded an elaborate accounting scheme using a web of interrelated organizations to hide their financial misdeeds from the Board, employees and funders.”
Target 8 has tried unsucessfully to reach Ezeh. Recent social media posts suggest she might be in Nigeria. Killebrew has denied any wrongdoing.
“When the executive leadership of an organization conspires together to defraud an organization, the standard checks and balances and financial policies are a moot point,” DeLeeuw’s statement continued. “The founder and CEO of an organization should safeguard its finances, not divert them for her own use and that of her family. The person who could have stopped the fraud — the director of finance — was actually the person who enabled it. The Board has worked for months to try and salvage operations, but the fraud runs too deep for the organization to recover. We had no other choice but to close the doors.”
Since filing suit last week, DeLeeuw said the the board had identified hundreds of thousands of additional dollars missing, some of which were transferred to a business registered in the state of Georgia with ties to Nigeria.
Despite the accusations against Ezeh and Killibrew, Target 8 is not aware of any criminal investigation. Target 8 has contacted the FBI, the Michigan State Police, the Grand Rapids Police Department, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office and inspectors general with state and federal agencies. So far, none has acknowledged an investigation. The Internal Revenue Service, reached by Target 8, said even if it were investigating, it could not publicly confirm it.