Friends of Special Education Kids (FOSEK) is no more.
In the wake of an embezzlement scandal and the resignation of several board members over the way the non-profit was run, the remaining board members voted to dissolve the organization. They also voted to turn over operation of the groups sports programs, including TOPS Soccer, Little Reds Basketball and Titan Tee Ball, to Liam Nation, another Tewksbury non-profit.
In a letter sent to FOSEK membership dated March 4, the FOSEK Board announced the decision and spoke of the program's successes since its founding in 2009. While not addressing the specific difficulties the group has faced in recent months, the board wrote that it felt it was taking the right steps in the best interests of the families the programs serve.
The letter read, in part:
"It is with a heavy heart that we need to take these steps, but we feel that it is in the best interest for this organization to dissolve and seek out other avenues for the athletic programming to carry on. Under the “Dissolution” section of our bylaws, if voted unanimously, by the FOSEK Board of Directors, to dissolve the FOSEK organization then the funding and programming will be reallocated to another organization whose mission is similar to the mission of the FOSEK organization."
(The complete letter is attached to this story as a PDF document.)
At the time of the decision, the three members left on the board were CEO and Executive Director Deb Brown and Secretary Ben Lambert.
Messina, who will stay on as a coach with the sports teams, said he is very comfortable with Liam Nation taking over the operation of the programs and said the two groups share values and goals.
"Deb Brown and I started FOSEK four years ago so the Special Abilities Athletes in the Merrimack Valley could participate in sports just like everyone else," said Messina. "Our mission is right in line with that of Liam Nation Inc. and we are all very excited about what the future holds in store as a result of our merger. The programs are going to run as they have and many improvements will be made."
For their part, running sports programs will be a first for Liam Nation. the oldest child of Board President Erin Knyff. Liam was born with Down Syndrome and has also been diagnosed with autism.
Liam Nation was founded as a fundraising organization to help out other non-profits that benefit children with cognitive and physical delays.
"We try to help out in a big way on a small scale," said Erin Knyff.
In the past, Liam Nation has distributed funds to such groups as:
- Professional Center for Child Development
- Tewksbury Challenger Baseball League
- Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress
- The Tewksbury Integrated Preschool PAC
Knyff said taking on a major task like running a sports program for special ability athletes poses new and unique challenges but that Liam Nation has the infrastructure needed to make it work.
"It is a challenge but I've got an amazing board," she said. Board members include Charlotte Gray, Lisa Macchi, Lisa Puccia, Adrian Knyff, Jeanne Doherty, June Souza and Rich Souza.
Puccia will be charged with the responsibility of being the first director of Liam Nation Athletics. According to Knyff, it was Puccia who first approached the board about the problems FOSEK was having and the possibility of taking over the programs. Knyff met with Messina on Feb. 9 and he appeared before the Liam Nation Board on Feb. 18 to discuss the idea.
Knyff said she feels Messina is a good person and a valuable asset but that one of stipulations to the deal was that the FOSEK name not be a part of it, given the recent negative publicity associated with it.
News of the dissolution of FOSEK and the deal with Liam Nation has not been met with universal approval. Some former FOSEK board members, who are still involved with group as members, called it a "back room deal" and say Messina and Brown should have stepped down following the embezzlement scandal and allowed a new board with new officers to be elected.
"Our main concern is that, as members of the organization, this was all done in a very hush-hush manner. In other words something seems rotten in Denmark," said Ed Connerty who, before resigning from the board, served as Outreach Coordinator for FOSEK and developed and ran the Starz Kickball and Titan tee-ball programs. "We have no problem whatsoever with Liam Nation. We feel that Vini Messina and Deb Brown need to come out of hiding and explain this situation. It's only fair. They have gone into hiding since the embezzlement issue and have not come out and explained anything."
"There were other options (to dissolution) and ... several former board members had offered to take it over from Vini," said Bob Gill, who had resigned, along with his wife, from the FOSEK board in November.
Knyff said she hopes that volunteers who had given so much of their time and energy to build the sports programs with FOSEK will consider volunteering as coaches, committee members, etc. with Liam Nation.