When the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg was asked to consider taking over a popular after-school child literacy program, president and CEO David W. Jezek said he’d have to think about it. “We didn’t just automatically say ‘yes,’ we had to see if it was a fit,” Jezek said.
The request came from the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County.
“We met with staff and volunteers – we did our due diligence, and we needed to work with the JWB to understand the budget, and what they were looking for in the future in regards to this program.”
The JWB was already a funding source for several YMCA programs. Still, “We take a very businesslike approach to these enterprises,” Jezek said. “We have said ‘no’ before. We match up mission, service, program, operational sustainability, all those things. This isn’t a short game for us, it’s a long game.”
The Y accepted the challenge, and has already begun re-operating the 10-year-old program, which is based in eight neighborhood churches and serves more than 250 children. Its new headquarters are in the Y’s Childs Park building, at 691 43rd Street S.
The literacy program, which provides tutors, mentors, homework assistance and structured activities for young people, had been operated out of the Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center. In June, the Midtown center became embroiled in controversy when three top staffers were accused of accepting payouts for unused vacation pay.
Sanderlin executive director Lounell Britt and operations chief Delphina Davis resigned.
The Sanderlin board fired the program’s longtime director Donna Welch, even after determining she’d done nothing wrong.
This week, Jezek didn’t need another pause to think about his next step. He hired Welch to run the literacy program under the auspices of the YMCA.
“I’m excited to return to my work, back with our youth and the teachers in the faith-based literacy program,” Welch said. “The program meets many unmet needs in our community, and I’m looking forward acknowledged the benefits of having someone so well-entrenched in the program, and the community, at the helm.
“She is very passionate about this program, and well-supported,” Jezek said. “She has the kids at heart. That’s why we’re doing this program, too – this is a natural fit for us.
“She has a great understanding of the program, and how it’s evolved. And we take great value in that, and certainly in relationships with family and children and churches was a key part of it.”
Jezek admits he doesn’t know all the details of the Sanderlin fracas, but insists it has no bearing on the future success of the program, which does not as yet have an official name.
“We’ve tried to keep out of the fray and focus on what’s important,” he said. “And that is serving children, and doing it in a way that delivers impact.”
There was some urgency to the transition, as the JWD must approve funding for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The Y will receive approximately $120,000 to operate the program from now until the end of September.
Welch, who’s married to Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, gives high marks to the YMCA’s “strong support system. And I believe we can come together to begin to make it even stronger, and end this on a positive note.”
Said Jezek: “To us, this was not about Donna. Our organization was asked to take this on, to step up, and that’s what we’ve done.
“I asked her, ‘Donna, do you still want to do this?’ There’s a lot of assumption out there that she wants to, but I wanted to hear it from her.
“And when I asked her that question, there was no hesitation: ‘Absolutely I want to do this.’ At the Y, we’re very dedicated to what we do. And we’re best when we have people that are not only good at what they do, but they’re passionate about it.”
“My focus is on the youth, and that’s what it has been for the decade I have served in this position,” Welch said. “I’m looking forward to going back and seeing those faces. And getting things back on track. Let’s go to work.”