ST. PETERSBURG — The YMCA is taking over a popular child literacy program run for years through the financially troubled Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center in Midtown.
The non-profit will turn to a familiar face to lead the effort: Donna Welch, the wife of Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch who was sacked two weeks ago after a decade overseeing the program at Sanderlin.
Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County members voted unanimously on Thursday to make the change, which will take place in two weeks. An attorney for Donna Welch confirmed she has been offered a contract to run the faith-based literacy program.
"We did need to move or do something differently with the faith-based literacy center," said Dr. Marcie Biddleman, CEO of the Juvenile Welfare Board, which provides some of the Sanderlin Center’s funding with tax dollars. "We have children involved. It’s their summer programs."
Donna Welch was one of three top employees accused in June of accepting payouts for unused vacation pay that were not approved by Sanderlin’s board of trustees. The other employees, executive director Lounell Britt and operations chief Delphina Davis, stepped down earlier in the month.
But a subsequent investigation into the vacation payouts found no wrongdoing by Welch. She told a pair of Sanderlin trustees who reviewed the matter that she did not request the money and sought to return it afterward.
The Sanderlin board voted to fire her anyway last month after she served a two-week unpaid suspension, a decision Welch’s attorney, Shirin Vesely, said was politically motivated.
The Juvenile Welfare Board was already looking into financial problems at Sanderlin, which offers a variety of education-, health- and job-related programs. The center was facing bills of $30,000 to $40,000 that it was having trouble paying, and the vacation payout was adding to its financial difficulties.
The literacy program serves 265 kids at eight churches. The YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg will simply take over administration. Sanderlin employees who worked in the program will need to reapply for their jobs, but likely will be rehired providing they pass background checks, Biddleman said.
Several people addressed the Welfare Board on Thursday, some vouching for Welch, others saying the process was moving too swiftly.
The Rev. Clarence Williams expressed dissatisfaction that Welch has been without pay since the Sanderlin board voted to terminate her.
"Any process that does not protect and create a spirit of confidence and trust within this organization is destined to fail," he said. "If Donna Welch didn’t do anything, I think the world ought to stand and say we’re standing with her."
Cassia Evans, a parent of a child in the literacy program, compared Welch to the diver killed attempting to rescue the team of 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand.
"Your faces don’t look familiar because you didn’t come into the ‘hood," she told the board. "My child is alive today because of Donna Welch. She went beyond and above to help my child and help me be a better parent."
Under terms of the vote, the YMCA will receive $120,000 to run the literacy program through the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.