Lesson from losses: Outreach rebounds after $75,000 theft

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

SNELLVILLE -- Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, Cathy was unsatisfied with the high-priced, traditional counseling she was receiving. With her daughter's wedding on the horizon, stresses mounted and worries accrued.

At the advice of her psychiatrist, Cathy, as she wished to be called, turned to a lesser-known and cheaper alternative, Covenant Counseling and Family Resource Center, headquartered in a split-level, brick home in a Snellville neighborhood off U.S. Highway 78.

At Covenant, the 49-year-old Lawrenceville mother said she was embraced by an expert staff willing to accept payments on a sliding scale, a rarity in the Gwinnett area, she said.

"If it wasn't for their services, I really doubt I'd be able to afford the counseling that I need," she said. "I've had some really, really good successes there."

That sentiment echoes among patrons of an agency that, leaders say, was in need of some counseling itself (albeit the financial kind) a few months ago.

Covenant is putting the finishing touches on a rebound phase, recovering both financially and emotionally after a former bookkeeper allegedly bilked the agency of $75,000, roughly the equivalent of two counselors' salaries. The money, stolen from customer payments and other funds over two years beginning in January 2007, was a substantial chunk of the nonprofit's $175,000 operating budget, leaders said.

Fallout from the theft was widespread. It required Covenant employees to buy their own business cards and office supplies. Plans for a children's therapy room were stalled. The IRS eventually settled on fining the agency a lenient $10,000 for delinquent tax paperwork -- a relief considering Covenant's 501(c)3 status, which allows federal tax exemptions for nonprofits, was in jeopardy in the wake of the alleged embezzlement, in addition to much heftier fines.

"Sometimes I think about how many people we could have helped if we had that money," said the Rev. Jaye Peabody, the center's executive director. "When someone you trust steals from you, it hurts. It's a betrayal."

Sheila Kitchens, the former bookkeeper, is charged with 10 felony counts of theft by taking, though that tally could rise significantly when the case goes before a grand jury, authorities have said. Hired in 2000 and fired last September for work-performance issues, Kitchens was arrested in April after an internal audit uncovered the string of thefts, police said. She's since posted $100,000 bond.

Investigators said Kitchens confessed to bilking Covenant and spending nearly all the money on personal expenses.

Despite the setback, Peabody said the agency has operated in the black every month this year. But as a sour economy has led more folks through her doors with marital stress issues, mental health problems and other dilemmas, more financial stability is needed, she said.

Covenant hopes to raise at least $5,000 through two fundraisers, including a partnership with a local Stevi B's Pizza restaurant Monday, that should galvanize most services this year. The center serves more than 500 individuals and families throughout metro Atlanta at the Snellville headquarters and satellite offices.

The spirit around the Scenic Drive office -- decorated warm and homey as a grandmother's living room -- is one of rejuvenation, employees say.

"We have sighs of relief and celebration," said assistant staff therapist Sharai Bradshaw.

Elijah Collins, pastor of Snellville's Jerusalem Baptist Church, routinely sends congregation members to Covenant, especially when the church is beleaguered with requests. He calls their services unique.

"Oftentimes, as a pastor, we can't sit down and counsel with everyone," Collins said. "Covenant has been an extra arm, so to speak. They're there to help, and they don't mind doing so."

Another client, a Snellville nurse named Camille, said the sighs of relief aren't limited to the staff.

"I'm always taking care of others. With (Covenant), it allows me to make things better for myself," she said. "I don't know what I'd do without them."