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Nonprofit focuses on mission rather than controversy

Mark Parker

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Melinda Perry (center) interim CEO of Hope Villages of America, with Janelle Martinez and Java Ingram during a recent television segment. Photos provided.

Following years of lawsuits, funding losses and mass resignations, new leadership at Hope Villages of America (HVA) remains committed to providing food and affordable housing while helping foster children and human trafficking victims.

The Clearwater-based nonprofit’s longtime CEO, Kirk Ray Smith, resigned in December 2022 after all six members of a volunteer committee stepped down due to alleged mistreatment. HVA’s board held an emergency meeting Nov. 28 and later stated that Smith left to pursue “future endeavors.”

Melinda Perry, the organization’s former chief operating officer, is now righting the ship as interim CEO. She served as a St. Petersburg Housing Authority executive before Smith hired her in 2017.

“Anytime there is any kind of negative publicity in the news, it probably does cause people who are donating to think twice,” Perry said. “So, we are just trying to mitigate that with all the positive things that we have been doing recently.”

One of the multidimensional nonprofit’s focuses is providing food to Pinellas County residents in need. According to its website, HVA distributes over six million pounds of food, feeding about 150,000 people annually.

A mobile food pantry launched last year, and Perry is working to increase its impact. She said it now stops at more than 150 senior living apartments, recreational centers, affordable housing complexes and “the communities that need it the most.”

HVA employees and volunteers also assist with over 3,800 domestic abuse calls annually. Perry noted the organization recently hired a new vice president of abuse services with a background in human trafficking mitigation.

“So, that’s another area that we’re going to be expanding services and really putting more focus on,” she added. “Especially the education piece, and making sure that individuals in the community understand what it is, what to look for and what they can do to assist somebody.”

Formerly known as Religious Community Services of Pinellas, HVA’s board hired Smith in 2016. Female employees claimed he made inappropriate comments in a 2019 lawsuit, which the parties confidentially settled in 2022.

In December 2020, the Juvenile Welfare Board unanimously voted to withdraw $400,000 in annual funding due to financial and management concerns, although it continued to support other HVA programs. That forced Smith to transition the county’s largest homeless family shelter into affordable housing last year.

Following a loss of funding, Hope Villages of America transitioned its Grace House (pictured) homeless shelter for women and children into affordable housing units.

At the time, Smith called the move “bittersweet” and noted HVA wanted to provide affordable housing options to help prevent homelessness. The Oaks at Hope Villages opened in Oct. 2022, and vouchers allow residents to pay about 30% of their income towards rent.

The units are full, and Perry said families could pay about $330 per month for an apartment that would go for $1,700 on the open market. She noted that the organization also provides case management, life skills classes and other wraparound services to help people get on their feet.

Perry called it “a self-funding cause” and said the subsidies and rent income enable HVA to maintain the property and provide additional services.

“I really think it’s a win-win for the community,” she said.

HVA recently partnered with an organization that helps youth who age out of foster care, and Perry designated one three-bedroom unit for 18-year-olds who exit the system with nowhere to go. She relayed that the semi-independent housing serves as the next step towards self-sufficiency.

“We’re bigger than any one person,” Perry said. “We’re bigger than any one funder. We’re still carrying out the mission of making a difference in the lives of people in the community, and that’s what matters.”

Speaking from personal experience, Perry said she enjoyed working with Smith. She witnessed him do “great things” with the organization and said he brought her in to help make necessary changes.

Perry remains proud of the work they accomplished. She said Smith mentored her and established policies and procedures to ensure HVA’s mission moves forward regardless of who occupies the C-suites.

Melinda Perry hopes to continue serving as the organization’s full-time CEO.

While a CEO sets the vision, she said the organization’s staff and volunteers ensure its success.

HVA’s governing board consists of 12 members, although it can have up to 17. They are handling the search for a permanent CEO, and Perry hopes to remain in her role.

While she is unsure when the board will make its decision, Perry believes that is a sign that they are “very confident in my abilities.” She reiterated her concentration on bolstering the mobile food pantry, affordable housing and human trafficking efforts throughout her first year.

“I think those are really going to be impactful for both the organization and the community,” Perry said. “Despite the negative press we have received and the different things that people have said, we’ve just decided to push forward and not engage in any of the negativity and just focus on the future.

“What we’re doing is bigger than any one individual – even myself.”

 

 

 

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