Friday, May 04, 2001

Mentor leader dropped

But she vows to carry on herself

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — A popular mentoring program for African-American youths is the focus of more controversy at the Northern Kentucky Community Center.

        Budget problems led to layoffs Monday at the center, in the heart of Covington's black community. Five employees were dismissed, including part-time mentoring coordinator Janelle Hocker.

        Ms. Hocker, 35, took the job last fall and quickly made an impact, recruiting 38 volunteers from businesses such as Procter & Gamble, arranging activities for the children and their mentors and taking older students to visit a college campus.

        “She did an outstanding job,” said Jan Ising, director of the Family Resource Center at First District Elementary School. “She picked it up, took it and ran.”

        As mentoring coordinator, Ms. Hocker received a salary of $13,000 to recruit mentors and children, work with them and evaluate the impact of the program. Her salary and materials were supported by a $25,000 grant from the state Juvenile Justice Department.

        But the grant money is released only as the center submits receipts for reimbursement. Because of a long-standing budget crisis, the center has little money to spend up front. So $15,000 remains in its state account, but it has only two months left to spend it.

        Ms. Hocker's position was eliminated as part of a reorganization to cut costs, said Cliff Cooper, chairman of the community center's board. The layoffs will not affect the center's services, such as day care and housing assistance, he said. Remaining staffers will be shifted to cover open positions, including that of mentoring coordinator.

        But Ms. Ising isn't convinced anyone at the center can replace Ms. Hocker.

        She worked with Ms. Hocker to obtain mentors for 10 children from First District School. Teachers passed along feedback about the kids, which Ms. Hocker used to tailor activities that would help them.

        It's just the sort of program that Cincinnati leaders have been promoting in the wake of last month's civil disturbances. Meaningful intervention in the lives of black youths will help them meet their potential and avoid trouble, the leaders say.

        “They just love it,” Ms. Ising said of the First District students. “They go to museums, the zoo, dinner. (The mentors) visit them in their homes, meet the family.”

        Now, however, the program's future is unclear. Rollins Davis, executive director of the Northern Kentucky Community Center, said it will continue without Ms. Hocker.

        But she has all the information on participants, volunteers and donors. Mr. Davis said he asked her to return the files, but as of Thursday afternoon, she had not done so.

        “That information needs to stay in the building. That belongs to the agency,” Mr. Davis said.

        “If we decide to change staff, that's the way it goes,” he continued. “There's a misunderstanding on her part as to how programs actually run.”

        In an interview Thursday evening, Ms. Hocker said she's going to continue running the program from another, as-yet-undetermined location. She's starting her own nonprofit organization, and the mentors have agreed to stick with her, she said.

        “(The center) hires me to get everything together, and then they lay me off? I don't think so,” Ms. Hocker said. “They can go recruit their own mentors. I'm going to continue to run the program.”

        Mr. Cooper, the board chairman, suggested Ms. Hocker was acting selfishly. “If you're running a program and care about it that much, to sabotage the program because you've got a personal gripe ... I don't think that's right,” he said.

        Ms. Hocker countered that she's trying to save the program, not sabotage it. It was her, not Mr. Davis, she said, who interacted with the mentors and children, and they're counting on her, she said.

        “I don't have to do this. This is something I'm wanting to do,” Ms. Hocker said.

        “My goal is to make sure every child succeeds, because I know they can.”


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