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Jim Kennedy seems like the kind of man who would be welcomed by any community. A longtime resident who made his money from hotel and property management, this grandfather has always taken an interest in improving his hometown. Back in the early 1980s Kennedy made headlines when he founded and ran the Inner Southwest Sports Association, busing in needy Third and Fourth Ward kids to play baseball in the Montrose area. He still runs into adults he remembers as "scrubby kids" who are now doctors and lawyers.
"That's the reward," he explains.
So it was only natural for Kennedy to step forward when he learned that his church, First Baptist Church Heights, was planning to create a youth program for underprivileged kids. Kennedy, who served as a deacon for the church, volunteered to serve as president of the organization's board of directors.
In July 1999 the church hired Trevor Ming, a fresh-faced youth minister in his early thirties, to serve as director of Youth Vision, which he quickly nicknamed "The Zone." Kennedy and the father of two started with a handful of youngsters and soon had droves showing up. By all indications, the program was headed toward the kind of success that spells happy endings.
Two years later Kennedy has been branded a criminal by his own church. Ming has been fired, and he and his family were just ousted from his church-owned residence.
What on God's earth went wrong?
Youth Vision headquarters, located on the second floor of a church building near Ninth Street and Harvard, hardly began as a haven for disadvantaged youths. Cockroaches scurried about, and there was no working bathroom. A chalkboard hanging in the room apparently had eluded erasers for decades -- the last date scribbled on it was 1967. The place was in desperate need of cleaning. Ming, Kennedy and other volunteers began prepping the place for the kids they hoped would soon show up. Kennedy himself donated televisions, radios and a pool table.
He recruited other board members, from First Baptist and elsewhere, and drew up articles of incorporation for the group in July 1999. That began the process of registering Youth Vision as a tax-exempt charitable organization with the IRS. Board member Susan Emberg got involved after serving as mentor for two teenage girls attracted to Youth Vision.
"They liked going because they didn't have to worry about kids hitting on them with drugs," says Emberg. "It was a good place to hang out, play pool. On Fridays they'd have pizza."
Ming tells of Youth Vision sponsoring hiking trips on the Appalachian Trail, campouts in Colorado and Bible studies.
"We just tried to create stuff they enjoyed," says Ming, a Canadian native. "Ultimately we wanted to give them the Christian perspective on a healthy choice of living."
Over two years Youth Vision grew from three to 30 teenagers. The once dusty, dirty room had been transformed into an attractive alternative to street life. As the program became more popular, participation grew. So did budgets -- and contributions. Youth Vision leaders felt it was time to become more autonomous, although church officials would be in no mood for the looming civil war.
Initially, says Kennedy, First Baptist handled Youth Vision funds through a church-controlled checking account at Sterling Bank. That made sense to everyone involved. After all, the church paid Ming's salary and funded Youth Vision activities and equipment for the center.
However, program sponsors would get donations specifically for the center -- and yet could never be certain they were actually going for that purpose.
"We would get donations and not be able to even send a thank-you note because the church administrator would take the checks and put it in the bank," says Kennedy. "And we didn't even know where the check was coming from or where it was going."
He believes the church may have been using the contributions earmarked for Youth Vision for other church expenditures. Kennedy says he confirmed with the IRS that the tax-exempt status was nearing approval (that authorization has not yet been granted). Then he and Ming asked Pastor Larry Young and church administrator Gary Atkins to relinquish control of the Youth Vision checking account at Sterling Bank.
In June the program's board had received more than $7,000 in contributions from supporters, including the local Rotary Club. Emberg auctioned her old motor home on eBay for $4,500, which was donated to the group.
Kennedy and other board directors decided they were tired of battling the church hierarchy in their quest for financial independence. Kennedy says he had the Youth Vision bylaws to back him up, because they state that the treasurer should have the responsibility and custody of all program funds.
In mid-June he walked into the Heights-area Central Bank and deposited the $7,000 in donations in the name of Youth Vision Inc. Kennedy also wrote out a separate personal check for $2,000 to Youth Vision and placed it in the church's collection basket on July 1. But Kennedy claims that Atkins intercepted that check and deposited it in the church-controlled account at Sterling Bank.
Kennedy headed off to a vacation to Atlanta to celebrate his grandson's first birthday. He returned on July 10 to a First Baptist bloodbath. Other church members told him that Young was so angry at Kennedy's actions he had been unable to preach the previous Sunday. He also says Young told some of the congregation that Kennedy and Ming had stolen church funds.