Prominent Youth, a mentoring program, shut down amid embezzlement accusations at its founder

Monday, April 14, 2008

Prominent Youth, an entrepreneurial program for teens, has shut down amid accusations its founder embezzled $3 million from his previous employer.

Seven students in Southeast Missouri worked for the not-for-profit organization, which pairs youths with mentors to start their own businesses. The program was started in Kansas City in 2005 and expanded to Cape Girardeau in December.

Founder Scott Beeson, who attended St. Vincent's High School in Perryville, Mo., is accused of creating fake invoices while working at Ferrellgas Inc., which has filed a civil suit. The Kansas City Star reported that an internal audit at the propane gas company "revealed substantial payments were routed to Beeson's personal banking account or to what the documents describe as a nonprofit entity." The Star reported Beeson was fired March 13.

At the time, Prominent Youth, known as PY, decided to close for April. Sally Suchman, Southeast Missouri's regional manager, said she received word early this month the organization was shutting down entirely.

"We had a couple of major supporters back out and withdraw their funds. We didn't have enough to sustain keeping our office open. With PY closed, we couldn't do it on our own," Suchman said.

Prominent Youth's Web site has been taken down and the organization no longer leases space at the Southeast Innovation Center. Suchman said she has been "flirting" with the idea of creating an organization that would mirror Prominent Youth but said she doesn't "know how feasible that is."

"I think it's a shame. PY was teaching them a lot, not only about business but about themselves," said Debbie Neise. Her son, Nick, intended to start his own Great Dane breeding business.

Students in PY are trained to develop a business plan, advertise and run their own business, through the support of mentors. They are paid $8.50 an hour. Neise said the program gives students and option besides just "working at McDonald's or Burger King, which teaches them nothing but arriving to work on time."

Chris McMillan, a student at Notre Dame Regional High School, had developed a plan for a video production company. Working two hours after school, he spent time researching equipment to use people's old photos to create a video and possibly set it to music.

Suchman said other students had the idea to start Bella Dress Rental, where students could rent dresses and accessories for formal occasions, or to write for PY's newsletter.

McMillan remains confident the students and organizers will regroup. "Although [the Kansas City branch] screwed up tremendously, that's definitely not the case down here. We're in the process of securing office space and will be applying for a 501(c)3 ourselves. We won't have corrupt management like K.C. did. We'll bounce back from this for sure," he said.

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