When the Rev. Yolanda Whiten was appointed to head the Ann Arbor Community Center in May 2007, it was unclear if the historically black nonprofit would survive. A couple months after Whiten started, the center’s previous executive director, Ann Hampton-Hawkins, pled guilty to embezzling nearly $94,000.

Some who know her allege that Hampton-Hawkins stole to feed a gambling addiction. Thomas Miree, who chaired the emergency board that took over after the fraud was discovered, believes she actually made off with double the amount she admitted to taking. Everyone agrees that she left the center nearly bankrupt.

As Hampton-Hawkins bled the agency of funds, she left bills unpaid and routine maintenance undone. She sold off part of the center’s abandoned camp on Clear Lake, and its impressive headquarters on North Main became shabby and little used.

Yet, just two and a half years later, Whiten has engineered a remarkable turnaround. With the help of her board of directors, she’s restored the center’s reputation, stabilized it financially, and developed new programs. And she’s begun to answer a question that haunted the center even before the scandal broke: how can an agency created to serve a segregated black community find its place in the twenty-first century?

Savonia Carson, Doug Williams, and Walter Hill devoted their lives to building what Ann Hampton-Hawkins nearly destroyed.

The Ann Arbor Community Center descends from the Colored Welfare League, a self-help organization created by the Rev. Ralph Gilbert and a group of Ann Arbor black leaders in 1918. In the mid-1920s, the CWL’s youth clubs spun off into a new organization–the Dunbar Center–focused specifically on providing services for young people.

Initially headquartered in a board member’s house on Catherine Street, it was headed from 1926 to 1936 by Savonia Carson. When she resigned, Douglas E. H. Williams, a pharmacist turned social worker from Atlanta, succeeded her.

The choice of a licensed social worker was calculated to attract funding from the city’s Community Fund, a forerunner of the United Way. Soon after he arrived, Williams led the center’s purchase of a new headquarters at 420 North Fourth Avenue. The brick house at the corner of Kingsley (now Legal Services of South Central Michigan) became a clubhouse and youth services center for the entire black community.

Williams tripled the Dunbar Center’s membership while working quietly to improve race relations in the city. Older residents recall him as a skillful diplomat who successfully maneuvered through the maze of local politics to work on behalf of the city’s black residents without increasing racial tensions.

On his morning walks to work, Williams would drop by the offices of city leaders, passing out bright red apples. The friendly gesture was part of a larger strategy to maintain access without calling attention to any particular agenda. Under his leadership, the Dunbar Center became the first black organization to join the Community Fund as a member agency. And Williams won powerful allies in the city’s white establishment.

In the late 1950s, liberal philanthropist Margaret Dow Towsley donated generously to the fund-raising campaign to build the present center on Main Street. She recruited her architect brother, Alden Dow–christened by Frank Lloyd Wright as his “spiritual son”–to design the building.

The new center was completed in April 1959. Tragically, just six months later, Doug Williams suffered a fatal heart attack at his desk. The following year, the center’s board of directors appointed Walter Hill to succeed him. Like Williams, Hill was a trained social worker–at Morehouse College in Atlanta, his classmates had included Martin Luther King, Jr.–and, like his predecessor, he proved an unassuming but effective leader.

The Colored Welfare League had long since shut down, and the Dunbar Center had extended its services to include adults as well as young people. To reflect its expanded scope, in 1962 it was renamed the Ann Arbor Community Center.

A resourceful fund-raiser and capable administrator, Hill grew the renamed center into one of the city’s most important social service agencies. His initiatives included purchasing a former YMCA camp on Clear Lake in Waterloo Township as a home for the center’s long-standing summer youth camp, creating a teen drop-in center, and opening a day care center for low- and moderate-income families. By the time Hill retired in 1991, the center was the city’s third largest recipient of United Way funding, receiving about $250,000 a year.

To succeed him, the board turned to yet another southern-born social worker, Ann Hampton-Hawkins. Born in Monroe, Louisiana, Hampton-Hawkins graduated from Grambling State University and moved to Ann Arbor to earn a master’s degree in social work at the U-M.

At the community center, she projected a carefully crafted image. Jerene Calhoun, who worked with Hampton-Hawkins on an anti-drug program in the late 1990s, remembers her as “very professional” and “a good person to work for.”

Sandy Rupp got a similarly positive impression. When she arrived in town to head the local United Way five years ago, Rupp remembers, Hampton-Hawkins struck her as an “absolutely elegant and eloquent woman.” In hindsight, Rupp realizes that by then the thefts must already have been underway. Yet, “if you had seen her, you’d have thought nothing was happening.”

Those who knew the center well realized that something was wrong. Ann Arbor native and former center staffer Steve Dixon remembers the agency struggling to meet its financial obligations and obvious signs of deterioration in the building. “It just wasn’t the same place, not like it was when we were kids,” he says.

But Dixon, who considered Hampton-Hawkins a friend, never suspected she was responsible. On the contrary, he sympathized with her apparent struggle to keep the center going. “I just thought she was stressed,” he recalls. “I told her she just ought to retire and get out of the rat race.”

As the nonprofit’s financial picture grew increasingly grim, Dixon says, small groups of residents started gathering at the center to discuss what could be done. “Ann was at those meetings,” he recalls, “but I don’t think she said very much. She had to know what was happening, though.”

It was the United Way that finally forced the issue. As the center’s programs dropped away–Hampton-Hawkins closed both the camp on Clear Lake and the day care center–the agency’s funding shrank. By 2005, it was down to $75,000. In 2006, it was withheld altogether, Rupp says, “because necessary documents, such as the 990 [annual report] and audit, were not provided.”

The fund suspension led to an audit and then to a criminal investigation. It revealed that Hampton-Hawkins had set up a second bank account in the center’s name, then used what appeared to be routine fund transfers to siphon money from the agency for personal use.

For awhile, she was able to avoid detection by occasionally replacing some of the embezzled funds from the decoy account. But the scheme began to fall apart as her marriage started to crumble, eventually ending in a divorce. As her financial situation worsened, she reportedly moved in with her adult son in Ypsilanti. (Neither Hampton-Hawkins nor her son would comment.)

“It made me sick to my stomach when I first heard what had happened,” Dixon recalls. “I couldn’t believe that she would get caught up in something like that. She must have needed money bad. Why else would she steal?”

Even now, people who worked with Hampton-Hawkins are reluctant to talk about where she went wrong. But while asking not to be named, three sources say they believe she lost the money gambling in casinos. If so, it was an addiction that destroyed her career and very nearly destroyed the Ann Arbor Community Center.

In August 2007, Hampton-Hawkins pled guilty to a single count of embezzlement. In October, she was sentenced to probation, conditional on repaying the center nearly $94,000. No one knows how–some speculate she borrowed from family members–but she made the restitution and avoided jail time. After briefly moving back to Louisiana, she’s reportedly again living in the area.

After the scandal broke and funding disappeared, the remaining staff resigned. By early 2007, only a custodian and a bookkeeper were left.

Led by former Ford exec Thomas Miree, the new board of directors assessed the damage and created overdue financial safeguards. And they tapped a deep reservoir of goodwill for the center. Among those who came forward to help, in March 2007, was Yolanda Whiten. Just two months later, the board asked her to take over as interim executive director.

The hiring of Whiten, an ordained minister, symbolized the board’s commitment to resetting the center’s moral compass. But her other qualities were at least as valuable. Even before the scandal, Hampton-Hawkins tended to be remote and formal. Whiten, in contrast, is chatty and energetic, always eager to evangelize for the center’s work.

One of her first problems was fending off Waterloo Township. Hampton-Hawkins had moved the center’s summer camp back to Main Street and sold part of the property on Clear Lake. “They [the township] said, if you’re not using it, we’re gonna tax it,” Whiten recalls.

Instead, “we went out and cleaned it up.” Volunteers from the city’s field operations division cleared trees from the overgrown property, and members have maintained it ever since. “Now we go out there every year,” says Whiten. “We grill burgers and meet the neighbors.” She hopes to restore the camp’s lodge as a retreat center for local groups.

Whiten’s temporary appointment soon became permanent, and she moved on to other problems. Installing fiscal controls was straightforward; winning back donors’ trust took longer. The agency launched a membership drive and organized a spring fund-raising gala, which this year generated more than $25,000. And it’s been reaching out to the business community, attracting donations from companies as large as TCF Bank and as small as the Community Auto Wash.

Whiten also initiated an active program in grant writing, which is beginning to reap dividends in new program development. With funding from the United States Office of Women’s Health Services, the center now sponsors weekly discussions for local women about managing chronic illnesses prevalent in minority communities, including diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and stress. Working with Bethel AME Church, Whiten is spearheading a program aimed at curbing domestic violence, making the Ann Arbor Community Center one of three national sites participating in the federally funded Women of Faith and Intimate Partner Violence initiative.

To generate additional revenue, Whiten also rents out the community center’s meeting space to groups ranging from the Lucille Porter Community Leaning Post to the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. She was thrilled recently when a Hindu family held a soul-releasing ceremony there for a deceased family member. “I’m really pushing diversity,” she says. “The center was always very diverse–it was the Dow and Towsley families that built this building–but somewhere that got lost.”

“The days of serving just African Americans are over,” agrees current board chair Marvin Perry, an Ann Arbor native and U-M MBA. “Our outreach programs have to reach everybody, regardless of race.” Both Perry and Whiten say the center’s focus now is on the economic needs of families of all backgrounds. “We deal with the working poor,” says Whiten. The agency helped about 1,200 families last year with everything from distributing food and clothing to legal aid to notices of eviction.

“It has been an amazing journey to watch the agency recover and transform itself,” emails Sandy Rupp. With the center “once again proving its value to the community,” Rupp says, United Way resumed its funding last year, though at a much lower level–just $12,000. This year, it rose to $17,000–just as Michigan was hit with the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Whiten predicts that the needs of working families will only increase in the months ahead–and she hopes they’ll continue to turn to the Ann Arbor Community Center for help. Whatever their background, she stresses, “I really want people to know it’s everybody’s center.”