At a time when after-school and AmeriCorps programs face proposed federal cuts that could eliminate services for untold thousands of children, the agency that oversees AmeriCorps is fulfilling a congressional order to fund an agency run by an ex-football star that directly serves 38 kids on a budget of $1.3 million a year.
President Bush and Republican lawmakers hail the Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation (DGYLF) as a model faith-based program for poor children. But federal documents show that it does not operate as many youth centers or serve as many kids as its public pronouncements have suggested, or its federal grant applications proposed.
The foundation, which operates one learning center in Washington, is deeply involved in the daily lives of its kids, and parents laud its work with their children. The program includes daily after-school and summer activities, trips to Disney World or the Grand Canyon and even payment of private school tuition.
But as the foundation stands ready to collect on its second $1.5 million congressional earmark in three years, an examination of its tax returns and filings with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) raises questions about its costs and efficiency at a time when the federal government is slashing programs to save money:
• A second center proposed for Washington still does not exist almost two years after the foundation said it would open – and even though DGYLF hired staff for the center almost a year ago.
• The foundation’s plans for a chain of independent affiliates in six other cities have produced only two such affiliates, serving an additional 36 children.
• The foundation’s website and promotional materials, as well as federal news releases, have consistently given the impression that the foundation operates more learning centers and serves more children than it does.
• When pressed, DGYLF officials admit to costs of $10,000 to $12,000 per youth at its Washington learning center, but Internal Revenue Service figures show costs of more than $13,000 per child. When the foundation’s overall spending is taken into account, the cost per child rises to more than $34,000.
By comparison, the biggest federally funded program designated specifically for after-school operations, the $1 billion-a-year 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, spends about $1,000 a year per child, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
To be sure, the DGYLF learning center seems more involved in the lives of participating children than are most after-school centers. Green, an intense man of 42, stresses that it’s like an extended family. “I need to have my hands on a child every day,” he says, explaining the DGYLF philosophy.
But his foundation illustrates the controversy over Congress’ practice of leapfrogging the competitive grant process by handing money to members’ favored programs.
Grant monitors at CNCS, which issues the funds, say they are caught in the middle when dealing with a program like Green’s, which they did not pick but must oversee.
“The corporation believes that nonprofit organizations should have to compete for available federal money,” says Dana Rodgers, special assistant in the CNCS office of policy and planning. “Congress has determined that it’s appropriate to give an earmark grant to the Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation, so we try to greet these people and work with them cordially.”
Green and DGYLF officials say any claims of high costs or few children served are an unfair representation of their work. They blame bad breaks, like an asbestos problem in a building that was to house a second learning center, for any shortcomings in the number of kids DGYLF is helping, and say more centers are opening soon.
“We haven’t cheated anyone,” Green says. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
For more than a decade, a mix of football heroics and well-publicized youth work has made Green one of the most respected figures in the nation’s capital. A likely Hall of Famer, the seven-time all-pro ended his 20-year career with the Washington Redskins last year.
By then, his seemingly tireless commitment to kids had become part of a well-known public persona. A devout Christian, Green seems ready to talk for hours about how he has never tasted alcohol, smoked, done drugs or been unfaithful to his wife, or about the need for children and adults to have moral guidance.
He began DGYLF with private donations in 1988, building it into a $600,000-a-year operation by 1999. Working with both federal money and donations from corporations such as IBM and the Boeing Co., the foundation now spends $1.3 million a year, says DGYLF Executive Director J.C. Sherrod Jr. Green says football was “my job,” while the foundation is “my life,” and his good works have drawn numerous awards, honorary degrees and accolades from high places. In January, President Bush appointed him chairman of a new President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, which includes former baseball star Cal Ripken Jr. and Cokie Roberts of ABC News. The website for a DGYLF affiliate in Nashville (http://learningcenternashville.com) quotes former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) as saying, “This is one of the most effective programs for inner-city children today.”
Green opened his prototype learning center at Washington’s Franklin Commons garden apartments in 1993, in four basement rooms donated by the owner of the 100-unit complex.
The well-maintained property is located near the Catholic University of America and across the street from Trinity College. The center operates from 3-8 p.m., and often later, during which time the youths (ranging from elementary through high school age) eat snacks, work on personal journals and essays, do homework, read and work on computers. Some get individual tutoring.
Bible study is once a week, and there’s a prayer before the snack.
The program’s roots in Green’s Christian convictions are clear to residents at Franklin Commons. In addition, the foundation and its affiliates draw significant leadership from Morning Star International, a Tennessee-based network of Pentecostal churches, although the ties to Morning Star are not mentioned in DGYLF’s brochures and website.
Janeye Guinn, 15, says she’s been enrolled for a year at Franklin Commons and likes that the activities are “spiritually based.”
“Some kids feel they try to shove God down your throat,” she says, “but I’m not one of them.”
Still, the foundation does more than operate an after-school and summer program: It gets involved in the lives of the kids and their families in ways that most youth centers cannot contemplate or afford.
“I don’t know what I would have done if they’d not been there,” says Wilma Roper, who is raising four great-grandchildren enrolled in the Franklin Commons center. Two are about to enroll in a private school in upscale Potomac, Md., with DGYLF financial help.
Other youths in the program have also been encouraged to leave regular public schools for charter or private schools. DGYLF’s total bill for tuition help was $91,000 in 2001, Sherrod says. On rare occasions, he says, the foundation has paid rent and light bills for a family facing eviction or a power shut-off.
Children win points for hard work and good behavior that count towards an annual “Mystery Trip,” for which about three-quarters of the children qualify. Even parents are only told where exactly their kids are going shortly before the kids leave. Past destinations – some of which Roper’s great-grandchildren have gone to – include Canada, Disney World, New York City, Chicago and the Grand Canyon.
“One thing we feel is very important,” says Sherrod, “is getting [the children] outside of their surroundings” so they understand “that there’s a big world out there.”
Such cultural exposure and the foundation’s high requirements for professional staffing are notably costly. DGYLF insists on one “trained” and experienced teacher for each 15 kids. In reality, there seem to be even more adults on hand.
One question, however, is whether DGYLF does all that it says or suggests.
How Many Kids?
The foundation’s website (www.dgylf.org) speaks of “tutoring and mentoring and values-based education for more than 100 children and families living in the Washington metropolitan area.”
But Franklin Commons is the only DGYLF center in or near Washington, and it serves 38 kids.
A question-and-answer section on the website says this about Franklin Commons: “Q: ‘How many participants are enrolled in the Northeast Learning Center in Washington, DC?’
“A: Currently, there are 106 children and families. Full family participation is enjoyed by 38 of the children.’”
Asked who the “106 children and families” were, Sherrod says he doesn’t immediately know – then later says the number includes siblings and relatives of the 38 children. “It could be worded better,” he says.
Green insists that his program serves the whole family, which is why family members and siblings are sometimes included in the numbers. DGYLF has held parenting sessions and helped adults find work.
But don’t go overboard on the praise, says Franklin Commons Tenant and Civic Association President Gwen Southerland. An acknowledged Green critic, Southerland points out that most kids at Franklin Commons are not in Green’s extended family and do not get trips to the Grand Canyon or Disney World.
About 25 of the youths enrolled at the center live in Franklin Commons; most others live in nearby neighborhoods, and two live in suburban Maryland, Franklin Commons residents say.
And while DGYLF boasts that six alumni of the center have gone to college, Southerland points out that other children in the complex have gone to college without the foundation’s help.
She also faults Green for playing on stereotypical impressions of “ghetto” circumstances, for saying things like, “Daddy’s not there, Momma’s on drugs,” when appealing for support for DGYLF. Southerland says that most Franklin Commons residents are employed and live responsibly.
“Knowing that YLF got $1.5 million, and that Franklin Commons was probably used as the prototype to justify applying for this larger-than-life amount of money,” Southerland says, “I would hope that our residents, excepting the favored few, would be mad as hell.”
All the same, there is a waiting list to get into the free program – but openings are rare because many children stay in the program though high school. Parents sign a contract that their children will regularly attend learning centers functions and obey center rules.
Sherrod says DGYLF has “limited resources” and selects kids on a “first-come, first-serve basis.”
“It breaks our heart that we can’t extend” the services, Sherrod says. “But we cannot let that deter us from serving those we can.”
Yet does the center serve as many kids as it could, considering the money it has?
Money Rolls In
By the standards of many youth programs, DGYLF has been well-funded, with taxpayers, corporations and individual donors anteing up several million dollars in the past few years.
But before Congress stepped in, the foundation ran a $177,000 deficit in 2000, according to its tax returns.
It reported $173,292 in management and $150,979 in fundraising costs – leaving only $356,925, or 52 percent of its budget, for services to the kids at Franklin Commons. Management and fund-raising costs were high because of plans for growth, Sherrod says.
Charity watchers like the Better Business Bureau recommend that program services should be at least 65 percent of a group’s budget. Such concepts appear to annoy Green, who suggests they come from people sitting on the sidelines, watching others help kids. “Who comes up with such numbers?” he asks.
Fiscal 2001 marked the first year that the federal grant money started rolling in, via a $1.5 million earmark “to meet the needs of children living in insecure environments,” as Congress described the DGYLF grant. The grant was eventually extended over two years, because progress toward the grant’s goals was slow.
Foundation salaries and consultants’ fees rose with the coming of federal funds, the tax returns show. But the number of children served did not change.
With $643,297 from CNCS in 2001, the foundation’s reported spending on programs did reach 65 percent – but those services included $204,000 for a National Training Institute, which did not serve kids but was to help adults replicate the Franklin Commons model in other cities.
In its application for the CNCS money (which is required even for earmarks), the foundation touted the commons center as “the model for national after-school programs.” Through the institute, DGYLF said, “we will replicate our Youth Learning Centers within the Washington metropolitan area and assist others to carry our model to major cities throughout the country.”
CNCS documents show that the agency’s grant monitors repeatedly asked in 2001 and 2002 about when and where new learning centers would open.
The foundation said centers in suburban Reston and rural Berryville, Va., were in a “pre-implementation phase.” In fall 2001, a 10-week “pilot” program opened in Berryville (population: 3,000) in partnership with the Clarke County School District, but it did not follow the Franklin Commons model. Instead, a $50,000 grant from the George Edward Durell Foundation was used to recruit 10 football players from Shenandoah University to work as mentors for 10 kids.
Then in December 2001, the foundation’s training institute held a three-day seminar in Washington. Green addressed an opening-night dinner about “the inspiration, conviction and organization of his vision,” according to a foundation press release.
The foundation said trainees came from seven locales. Press materials in January 2002 listed existing DGYLF learning centers as Franklin Commons (38 children), Berryville (10), Durham, N.C. (45), Greenville, N.C. (20) and Nashville, Tenn., (10), with openings slated for Washington in 2002 and Rocky Mount, N.C., and Richmond, Va., in 2003.
At the least, the list was optimistic. In April of this year, Sherrod said DGYLF had only two “official” affiliates – the Community Life Center in Durham, with 15 kids, and the Youth Life Learning Center in Nashville, with 21.
Greenville and Berryville were not “official” affiliates operating in accord with the DGYLF model, Sherrod says, although Green insists he helped get them going. Plans for a Rocky Mount center were dropped; and there were continuing problems in Washington, where the opening of a second center was on hold.
In July 2002, Sherrod reported to CNCS grant monitors: “We have secured a facility in Southeast Washington, D.C., and are scheduled to begin serving 15 children and their families beginning September 2002.”
But this past January, approaching two years into the CNCS grant, Sherrod reported to the agency that the site hadn’t worked out “due to significant building code violations and requirements for asbestos abatement.” The foundation pledged to find another site in the area to serve “thirty at-risk children.”
In early June, Sherrod said DGYLF was “in the process” of leasing a site in Washington for its second center, which would open in September for 15 to 20 children. Later in the month, during an interview with Green, Sherrod said the center would have 60 to 75 children.
There would be no argument that DGYLF serves too few children, Green says, if that second center had opened as planned. “We hired a staff and we were ready to go,” he says. “The only thing we’ve done wrong is that that building had asbestos in it.”
But throughout these setbacks, money and high-level praise for Green’s work continued to flow.
The federal government has continued to publicly praise Green’s work, crediting the foundation with operating youth centers that it doesn’t. For instance, when U.S. Secretary of Education Roderick Paige appeared with Green at an April 2002 event to promote the president’s education initiatives, an Education Department news release said “the program has expanded to Nashville, Tenn.; Berryville, Va.; Greenville, S.C.; and Durham, N.C.”
Paige visited the Commons in May 2002 and was a guest at a luncheon honoring Green that October. That June, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson used the center as a backdrop to announce a $30 million Compassion Capital Fund to help faith-based organizations compete for grants. “They often operate with limited funds, makeshift facilities, underpaid staff – and in the toughest neighborhoods,” Thompson said in prepared remarks.
This would not seem to describe Franklin Commons or Green’s well-equipped learning center. (Days before the announcement, however, three men who did not live at the complex had been shot dead in an apartment there. Police suspected the killing was drug-related.)
Meanwhile, Green retired at the end of the 2002 football season. At halftime of his final game in December, the Washington Redskins produced a giant $150,000 check for the foundation.
This past January, Green was the guest of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) at the president’s State of the Union address. Shortly thereafter, House and Senate Republicans invited Green to speak at their annual retreat at The Greenbrier Resort at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. “I want to have a voice in every aspect of youth development,” Green now says.
By then, the second congressional earmark for $1.5 million had already shown up in the 2002 CNCS budget. (DGYLF has applied for the funds, but they’ve not yet been delivered.) And Washington, where love of the Redskins can approach a mania, also remained fertile ground for Green to raise funds.
Twenty-one companies, including IBM, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, are listed on the DGYLF website as the foundation’s “Business Council for Youth.” To join, the website says, requires “a minimum $20,000 donation [that] makes it possible for 15 children to receive academic enrichment, values-based education, recreational and cultural activities, science and computer lab training, and scholarships for one full academic school year and full summer at the Youth Life Learning Centers.”
Doing all that for 15 youths with $20,000 comes out to $1,333 a child. With 21 companies paying at least $20,000 apiece, for a total of $420,000, that would be enough to enroll 315 youngsters in the foundation’s learning centers.
But besides the 38 youths at Franklin Commons, DGYLF’s affiliates in Durham and Nashville bring the total number of youth served under the foundation’s aegis to 74.
Green says a new affiliated center in Richmond, Va., is scheduled to open a summer program this month. But the foundation says that the affiliates are supposed to have their own boards and raise their own operating funds, although $65,000 each in “network affiliate support” was budgeted from federal grant funds for Durham and Nashville.
Green is involved in for-profit ventures as well, including an information technology firm, Darrell Green Trusted Solutions Group. The firm’s website (www.trustedsolutionsgroup.com) lists the nonprofit foundation’s Washington address among its “other facilities.”
Green says that was a mistake by one of his business partners. He says he keeps his private and nonprofit ventures strictly separate.
Although differing in many ways from what DGYLF is doing, most programs that call themselves learning centers serve more kids for much less money.
The $1 billion-a-year 21st Century Community Learning Centers program operates in 7,500 schools, but the Bush administration has proposed cutting the program by $400 million in fiscal 2004, saying it has not had enough impact on enough youths, especially in terms of grades.
The nonprofit Afterschool Alliance calculates that the cuts would add up to more than $2 million in Washington and the possible elimination of after-school services for 2,902 children in the city.
As for its own impact on grades, DGYLF says that “children enrolled for a 12-month period show an average composite increase of 1 year and 8 months in reading, vocabulary, math, and spelling skills,” as shown on their scholastic tests. This comes from the foundation’s review of the youths’ grades, not from an independent evaluation.
Some kids do drop out of the center. The required daily attendance can conflict with sports and school activities. But parent Doretha Stancil, mother of a center alumnus who now majors in communications and religion at Goucher College
in Baltimore, says parents are to blame for the bad choices some kids made.
“A lot of kids got to be 13 and 14, and they didn’t want to go anymore,” she says. “One girl got pregnant. One or two boys got locked up. Their parents didn’t force them to do the things they should.”
Green and his foundation seem undeterred by day-to-day setbacks. Even as DGYLF struggled to open the long-delayed second center in Washington, the foundation announced a $31 million fund-raising campaign, called “Turning Points.”
The campaign is described in a handsome brochure with full-page photos of smiling children and promises that, among other things, DGYLF will open 11 learning centers in the Washington area by 2009, if it gets the money.
Most of the children featured on the cover or elsewhere in the brochure – and on the DGYLF website – are not recognizable to residents at Franklin Commons.
Asked who the kids are, Green examines the brochure and points out a small photo of one child from Franklin Commons. But the rest of the smiling kids are not from any DGYLF program. They’re child models photographed in some unknown setting unrelated to the Green foundation. “They’re just stock photos,” Sherrod says.
Green dismisses the brochure as just the means to a more important end. He says he has a dream about helping kids, just as Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. “I’m not there yet,” Green says. “Come look at us a year from now and see what’s going on.”
J.C. Sherrod Jr., Executive Director
Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation
333 Hawaii Ave. NE, Second Fl.
Washington, DC 20011
Phone: (202) 269-1207
Going to Scale, or Off It?
If Darrell Green’s learning center is a model after-school program for poor children, expanding it nationwide would probably cost several times the $30 billion that the United States says it has spent so far on the war in Iraq.
More than 35,000 Washington youth live in poverty, according to the 2000 census. Even using the foundation’s estimate that it spends $12,000 a year per youth – an estimate that does not include most of the foundation’s costs – it would cost $420 million to enroll them all in the program.
On a national scale, the Children’s Defense Fund says 11.7 million children live in poverty. So it would cost about $140 billion to enroll them – and require the hiring of 780,000 additional teachers, at the DGYLF stated rate of one teacher for every 15 kids.
Who Watches Earmark Winners?
When Congress directs an earmark to a program, the government agency that awards the grant is charged with making sure the program does what it should with the money. But that doesn’t mean the agency will be an eager watchdog.
The Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees the grants to the Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation, has told Congress that it doesn’t like funding programs through earmarks. That said, has CNCS been satisfied with the results produced by the foundation with its grant?
“It’s not for me to be satisfied,” says Dana Rodgers, special assistant in the CNCS office of policy and planning. “I have no comment.”
Rodgers has twice visited the DGYLF Washington office and the foundation’s learning center. “They have done everything we have asked from them in terms of keeping to accounting procedures,” he says.
Should more children have been served with the $1.5 million?
“Is there a standard for cost effectiveness? No.”
Rodgers suggests that expectations are limited in such situations. “They’re a nice group of people to deal with,” he says. “I think they try hard. I never thought I should look at the Youth Life Foundation in the same way I would at a $40-50 million nonprofit that was getting an earmark.”
Nevertheless, CNCS grant monitors followed DGYLF’s progress, asking for resumes of staff members being hired, and questioning if all the learning centers listed on DGYLF stationery were true affiliates. (They were not.)
Religion’s Key Role
The Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation’s brochures and website make no mention of a seemingly important aspect of the program: religion.
The foundation’s learning center is described as “values-based education,” and Green is irrepressible in his insistence on the need for moral training.
DGYLF websites and brochures do not mention Christianity. Yet at Franklin Commons, youth talk openly about the Christian-based aspect of the center – including prayers and Bible study – which some of them favor.
Much of the leadership in the foundation and its two affiliates comes from Morning Star International, a Brentwood, Tenn.-based group of Pentecostal churches that lists ministries around the world and 48 affiliated churches in the United States.
The chairman of the DGYLF board is Brett Fuller, pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Herndon, Va., which is part of the Morning Star movement and which Green attends. Besides Fuller, the DGYLF board also includes Green, Green’s wife, Jewell, and two others.
Fuller and Ron Lewis, another leading Morning Star pastor, are on the board of the Youth Life and Community Foundation, which supports the Green foundation’s Durham, N.C., affiliate. And Rice Broocks, co-founder of Morning Star and pastor of Bethel World Outreach Center in Brentwood, is vice president of the Youth Life Foundation of Tennessee, which oversees the foundation’s Nashville center.
Green says the Morning Star church in Richmond, Va., will have a similar relationship with the new DGYLF affiliate that is scheduled to open there.
DGYLF is also listed among “Ministries affiliated with Morning Star International” on the group’s website (www.morningstar2010.com).
Morning Star International appears to draw little notice outside the world of charismatic Christian churches, but some of its leaders and affiliates have had brief brushes with controversy.
Morning Star is the parent organization of Champions for Christ, an Austin, Texas-based ministry that focuses on college and professional athletes. In 1998, the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars asked the NFL to investigate Champions’ inroads among their players.
Green, a vocal defender of Champions, objected to claims the group had undue influence over member players’ financial affairs. “I pray for the men who started this fire,” Green told Sports Illustrated in 1998, “because it is a dangerous thing to fight God.”
Little seemed to come of the NFL probe; the matter faded away.
Cult-watcher Rick Ross says he’s occasionally asked about Morning Star. But the concerns seem largely circumstantial, centering on reports that Greg Ball, who heads Champions, and Morning Star co-founder Broocks have been associated with Maranatha Campus Ministries, a group accused in the 1980s of operating like a cult. Maranatha Christian Ministries, the parent organization of the campus group, disbanded in 1989.
Ross, executive director of the New Jersey-based Ross Institute, which researches cults and controversial groups, says he still takes inquiries about Morning Star International seriously, if only because Maranatha was a “very controlling” group. “It was an abusive para-Christian organization that hurt a number of people,” Ross says. “It was very, very destructive.”
DGYLF Executive Director J.C. Sherrod Jr. says Morning Star seeks “to impact communities and develop leaders. They’re working to reach people who impact on their communities in a positive way.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Morning Star or Night Star,” says Green, indicating that he’s looking for people who agree with his vision about nurturing and educating children morally.
Intense Staffing, High Costs
Anyone trying to duplicate the Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation learning center model should expect high personnel costs. The foundation insists there should be one “qualified” and experienced teacher for every 15 kids, and it often seems to operate with a far lower staff-to-child ratio.
Until she left the program in June to pursue a doctorate, Debra Knight was listed as director of D.C. Metro Learning Centers (although there was only one at the time). DGYLF said she had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in “elementary school guidance, counseling and education” and 15 years of education experience.
The budget for the foundation’s federal grant also lists an assistant director at Franklin Commons (which serves 38 children), two teachers and an administrative assistant. When a second center in Washington failed to open, the director who had been hired in mid-2002 ended up working at Franklin Commons. The center also uses adult volunteers.
An afternoon and evening visit to the Franklin Commons center in October suggested the program functions with a high level of interaction between children and adult teachers and mentors. Seven adults and 28 youths were present at some time during the visit.
Meanwhile, the website for the Nashville, Tenn., affiliate (serving a reported 21 youths) lists the following staff positions: executive director, director of education, coordinator of volunteers and program management, hospitality coordinator, administrative assistant, three outreach coordinators and two volunteers.