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Mixed yields from Seed money

Justice Department grants of $206,971 over two years went to some programs with poor attendance and nothing to show.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The St. Petersburg Housing Authority would bring a professional chef into Jordan Park, teach jobless women the intricacies of French, Italian and American cooking and restaurant hygiene, then place them in food-service jobs.

Free food would be an added attraction. "This is a proven method for participation," wrote Charles F. Maloney, also known as Chef Charles.

The cost: Maloney and an assistant each would be paid $77.88 an hour for 24 two-hour sessions. There would also be food, kitchen equipment and uniforms to buy.

So what did the federal government get for its $9,500?

Eight people, most of them elderly or disabled, learned how to make omelets, beef stroganoff and shrimp fettucini. The housing authority cannot say whether any of them ever got jobs.

The Chef Charles experience is one example of what can happen when a highly touted social program has more money to give than good ideas for spending it.

In this case, the money came from Weed and Seed, a crime prevention and community building program financed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Weed and Seed has been controversial in St. Petersburg, largely because of its emphasis on intensifying law enforcement in the city's most troubled neighborhoods. Throughout that controversy, however, supporters have pointed with pride to the "seed" portion of the program _ tens of thousands of dollars in U.S. Department of Justice grants for local non-profit groups and government agencies.

A new round of grants is scheduled to be awarded in February. But a review of the past two years indicates mixed success from the $206,971 already awarded.

To be sure, much of the money appears to have done some good.

Teenagers were hired by agencies such as the YMCA and the St. Petersburg Arts Center for summer jobs. Amateur athletes received uniforms and travel expenses to go to state and national competitions, boosting their self-esteem along the way. Four-hundred children got a summer's worth of free swimming lessons.

In one apparent success story, the Pinellas Technical Education Center used $7,600 to take its customer-service training class out into the neighborhood. Of the 45 people who signed up at their local recreation center, 31 completed the course, and 25 reported that they now had good jobs.

Weed and Seed officials say they have refined their procedures to ensure that grant money is well spent. Weed and Seed coordinator Janis Ford visits every grant recipient at least once and makes sure they file reports promptly. More people with experience in non-profit management have been put on the grants committee.

Indeed, most of the problems revealed in the St. Petersburg Times' review occurred with grants awarded in 1998, before Ford was hired.

The program also abides by national requirements that no money be released until the recipient can show either a receipt or a bona-fide invoice.

But asking for receipts doesn't always mean the grant was effective.

Take the $5,000 awarded to the Healthy Start Coalition of Pinellas Inc. According to the grant application, the money would be used to put on a one-day seminar on building healthy male-female relationships. About 200 people would be expected. From that number, the agency hoped to recruit 10 young men and train them to run community support networks for fathers.

Here's what happened: One speaker got $1,500 to fly in from New York. Another speaker got $500. The agency spent $1,500 on food, T-shirts, door prizes and publicity materials.

Forty-five people showed up.

The agency then paid $2,000 to a local family therapist to train 11 young men for the support networks. The training occurred, but the networks were never established.

Ayakao Watkins, assistant director of Healthy Start, was in charge of the grant. She is no longer with the agency, but she said Friday that she still considers the money well spent.

The agency had been counting on another grant to support the community networks, she said, but that money fell through. As for the low attendance, she said: "Anybody who's done community work will tell you that to get 50 people to show up from that neighborhood is an accomplishment."

Those who did come enjoyed the speakers, as evidenced by the 24 people who turned in evaluations rating the program as "excellent," she said.

The young men ended up being trained in interviewing skills. They were then given temporary employment by another agency to survey families in two low-income housing developments on their parenting skills, Watkins said.

She described the lasting impact of the grant this way: "You've got 11 fathers who may or may not have had a job that summer, who you've educated in another area and who could go on to jobs in customer service. And, we got to collect some qualitative data."

One solution to questionable grants: Require agencies to measure the effect of their spending, not just report what they did. At present, the Weed and Seed program does not require this.

"There needs to be accountability, and our agency is willing to do that," said Debra Bara, who became Healthy Start's executive director after the questionable project was finished.

Unfortunately, she said, measuring impact can be expensive. It requires a highly trained person to correlate particular events with research that shows the social benefits of those activities.

Another agency that won grants in both 1998 and 1999 seems to have learned some things on its own.

The first year that the Resource Center for Women Inc. received $5,000 to provide pre-entrepreneurial training for underemployed people, everyone had high hopes. The agency hired a consultant for $2,000 to teach weekly classes at the Enoch Davis Center. Another $3,000 went for teaching supplies, promotional materials and a "Tribute to Women" event.

In 11 weeks, a total of seven people came to class. Some weeks there were only two or three. At least twice, nobody came.

The next year, Resource Center for Women got $6,500 to provide the same training. This time, it hired a different consultant. The curriculum also was changed to provide more hands-on experience and contact with other entrepreneurs. The program ended with each of the 25 participants being paired with a mentor and taken by hand to the Business Development Center, which can offer additional assistance to people who are trying to get a business started.

Ken Jones, the center's director, says he knows of at least three people from that class who are regular visitors at the center, and they're making progress.

It's unclear why the Chef Charles program presented by the Housing Authority crashed so badly. The authority official who told the Weed and Seed grant committee that Chef Charles was already successfully training residents no longer works for the authority. The Times filed a public records request on Tuesday for any files that might document the efforts made to find work for participants in the class.

On Friday, authority spokeswoman Julie Williamson said an employee had taken those files home and called in sick.

The authority did provide a class roster it had obtained from Chef Charles with 15 names on it. But sign-up sheets in the Weed and Seed grant files show that only eight people attended regularly. And no one answered the Orlando phone number that Chef Charles put on the grant application.

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