Skip to main content

Where’s the money? East Bay instructors say ex-San Francisco SAFE head stiffed them

Vieneese Kelly stands in front of Richmond High School.
Vieneese Kelly is among the instructors who say they were not paid for their work on a Richmond summer program for needy kids. | Source: Noah Berger/The Standard

Vieneese Kelly was distraught.

Between jobs in the summer of 2016, she landed a short-term gig that promised her a small stipend to teach a college prep course for needy kids in the East Bay city of Richmond, her hometown.

But Kelly and the other instructors who signed up to put on the new summer program were never paid, she said.

“I was stressed out,” she said. “I had worked this job for four weeks, expecting this pay that was going to help me pay my bills.”

The Standard reached five of the six instructors who worked for the program that summer, all of whom said they were not paid as promised. While some of them said they were not sure who was responsible for stiffing them, three of the instructors said that one person was to blame: Kyra Worthy.

From 2018 until last month, Worthy was the director of San Francisco SAFE, a police-funded nonprofit whose finances are currently the subject of a criminal investigation. After some six years on the job, Worthy was fired Jan. 24 when her nonprofit board found that bank accounts at the organization were depleted and that there were indications of possible check forgery.

The controversy was not her first.

As the head of her previous nonprofit, For Richmond, Worthy billed the West West Contra Costa County School District $6,000 to put on the summer program that Kelly worked for in 2016, according to emails obtained by The Standard. While emails show Worthy initially intended to use the money to pay instructors, it’s unclear what happened to the funding.

Kyra Worthy
Kyra Worthy was fired from her job at SF SAFE last month. | Source: Han Li/The Standard

The $6,000 was only a small portion of the nearly $235,000 that the school district demanded back from For Richmond in late 2017. In a letter to Worthy at the time, the district said it had found that the nonprofit submitted false invoices and received funds for services that it had—in some cases—not performed at all.

Worthy was hired by the SF SAFE board within months of that letter, raising questions about how much due diligence went into examining her past before she was selected to lead a nonprofit that got more than $5 million in taxpayer funding from San Francisco police from July 2018 through March 2023.

The allegations that culminated in her termination last month ranged from misspending at least $79,000 in police funding on luxury gift boxes, valet parking and a Lake Tahoe staff trip to questions about how SF SAFE spent as much as $1 million donated to the nonprofit by crypto billionaire Chris Larsen to pay for surveillance cameras.

Worthy did not respond to attempts to reach her by phone about the $6,000.

Program misses the mark

Despite its big ambitions, the summer program funded through For Richmond fell short of expectations.

The program, as advertised on Facebook by Richmond High School’s Black Student Union in June 2016, would engage students with courses in subjects such as dance, etiquette and Africana Studies. Students were also promised scholarships and a “Beautillion-Cotillion Gala” to cap off the summer.

Called the Richmond Legacy Project, it was organized by a teacher at the high school and a staffer at For Richmond and launched to support the small population of Black students at the majority Latino school.

Jessica Wright, who helped recruit instructors for the program, said she and the other adults who worked on the program were promised $1,000 stipends.

Others who worked for the program recalled differing amounts ranging from $500 to as much as $3,500, although many struggled to remember the details.

“We had aspirations to do a gala or a fundraiser,” Wright said. “It had the potential to grow into something really fantastic.”

But only the classes went as initially envisioned.

When Kelly tried to pick up her paycheck from Worthy on June 30, 2016, the nonprofit director told her she was in a meeting and that Kelly needed to fill out paperwork and show identification.

“I do not have your check,” Worthy texted her, according to screenshots of the exchange provided by the instructor. “All I know is the amount you are supposed to get paid.”

Worthy did not respond to subsequent text messages from Kelly asking about her paycheck on three dates the following month, the screenshots show.

Vieneese Kelly poses for a portrait at Richmond High School.
Vieneese Kelly said her attempts at getting paid by Kyra Worthy were unsuccessful. | Source: Noah Berger/The Standard

By late July, emails show the waterfront venue where organizers planned to throw a cotillion ball for the students with funding from For Richmond hit pause on the event, which was expected to cost $38,000.

Staff at the Craneway Pavilion said the event could not go forward unless For Richmond paid up front, citing a prior negative experience with Worthy. 

“I spoke with my accountant and at the moment Kyra has an outstanding bill from a prior event,” staff at the Craneway Pavilion wrote in an email.

Both the ball—and the promised scholarships—failed to materialize.

Like the instructors, Wright said she was also not paid.

Who’s at fault?

Davina Kelly, an instructor in the program who is not related to Vieneese Kelly, said she was preparing to move out of state when she got the gig. Davina Kelly said the funds would have helped her settle in Georgia.

“If I were to be upset with anybody, it would be Kyra,” Davina Kelly said. “She [was] the point person in all of this.”

Another instructor, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, also pointed a finger at Worthy.

“She got the money, and she was supposed to pay us,” the instructor said. “She never produced the money to anyone.”

But Chondra Harris, who taught a dance class that summer, said she wasn’t sure who was responsible. She could not recall whether she was supposed to be paid by the Richmond Legacy Project or For Richmond.

“It was just this big mess,” Harris said.

A second instructor who asked not to be named struck a similar chord.

“I just wrote it up as a disorganized situation,” the instructor said.

What happened to the money?

In its September 2017 letter demanding that For Richmond return the nearly $235,000, a West Contra Costa school official said the district had paid the nonprofit in full for the amounts it had billed the district for various contracts, including one $6,000 contract for the Richmond Legacy Project.

The district demanded that For Richmond return all funds paid out under the Richmond Legacy Project contract, as well as the others.

Emails obtained by The Standard show that Worthy billed the district $6,000 for the program in July 2016.

In a July 19, 2016, email to the principal at Richmond High School, Worthy wrote that she had “finally” received correspondence from the district that the funds would be released that week.

“As soon as I receive a confirmation from [a school district business official] that she has the check in hand, I will then release outstanding payments to those working with the Richmond Legacy Project,” Worthy wrote.

In another email later that month, she indicated that she would pick up the check from the school district official.

“Please hold the check for me to pick up when it’s ready,” Worthy wrote.

A spokesperson for the district confirmed that the $6,000 was dispersed to For Richmond. It’s unclear what happened to the funds.

In a July 26 email to organizers, Worthy indicated that the plan was to use the $6,000 provided by the district to cover the costs of instructors.

However, the contract that she signed for her nonprofit to secure the funds does not say the money must be used to pay instructors. It also does not mention any of the broader ambitions of the program, including the gala.

‘I would love to see some accountability’

While the students enjoyed the summer classes, many of those who worked on the program said they were disappointed about the unmet promises.

“It just didn’t end up being what it was supposed to be,” Viennese Kelly said. “It would have been a good change for Richmond.”

Wright questioned how Worthy could go on to land a job in San Francisco after she and the instructors were not paid.

“I would love to see some accountability in regards to the people that put her in positions of power and access,” she said.

Kyra Worthy stands at a press conference with Mayor London Breed and other city officials.
Kyra Worthy stands at a press conference alongside San Francisco Mayor London Breed and other city officials. | Source: Han Li/The Standard

The chair of the SF SAFE board, Dan Lawson, previously told The Standard that the body was aware of problems at For Richmond when it hired Worthy, but that there “was no proof or nothing to substantiate.”

He also said that SFPD helped vet Worthy.

Lawson did not respond to a request for comment Monday about whether the board was specifically aware of the instructors’ problems getting paid.

While acknowledging that the police department participated in the hiring process, a police spokesperson, Evan Sernoffsky, minimized the role of the SFPD in Worthy’s selection and said the decision was up to the nonprofit’s board. Sernoffsky said the department was not asked to perform a background check on Worthy.

There are no indications that Worthy was charged over her conduct at For Richmond. The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office could not confirm whether it had investigated the matter.

While the summer program instructors consulted with a lawyer, nothing came of it.

Like the others, Wright said she has moved on in the years since the program.

“I sleep well at night,” she said. “For people like that who are deliberately deceptive, I know it has to be difficult to rest.”