NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Serena Harris is pastor at a Norfolk Church and operated the Holy Temple Feeding Program, which provides free meals for disadvantaged children. The problem — vendors who cooked thousands of those meals claim the pastor hasn’t paid up.
“I took her word. I thought she was sincere. I thought we would get paid. I thought this would be the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Sherrey McGill.
When a church hired her to cook for low-income kids, McGill jumped at the opportunity. Not only would she help kids in the community, but she could build her business at the same time. The expected payout — Hundreds of thousands of dollars. But McGill said she hasn’t seen a dime, and she’s lost her business, Sherrey’s Kitchen.
“It’s a disaster,” she said. “I owe 20 people for working for me. Where am I going to get the money from?”
McGill signed a contract to cook 180,000 meals and to be reimbursed $405,000 through Harris’ program, which she was told would be federally funded.
“We hired 20 people. We had an orientation when they came on board, and they were told it was a government contract, and they knew they wouldn’t get paid until I got paid,” McGill said.
McGill said over 11 days, she delivered 6,300 meals to Norfolk housing developments and community centers, a total of five locations. She put her faith and trust in Pastor Harris, who preaches at Holy Temple Evangelical Christian Church on E. 27th Street. She is the one who signed the contract with McGill and operated and is ultimately responsible for the program.
10 On Your Side went looking for answers, and we found Harris outside her home. We asked her why she hadn’t paid back Sherrey’s Kitchen. Harris answered: “Pay her back for what?”
For what? For all the dinners McGill cooked. And McGill isn’t alone.
“She signed me up, over an eight-month period of time, [I was to get] $153,000,” said DaShawn Leary, who operates Jordan’s Southern Cuisine. “It’s not all about the money. It’s for the kids … they were looking forward to the nutritious meals.”.
WAVY.com asked Harris why she didn’t pay back the vendors who cooked thousands of meals for her. In reply, Harris got in her car and left her home.
Our first encounter with Serena Harris did not go well, but we convinced her to sit down with us and her husband, who is the Bishop of the church, and explain how so much went so wrong. During the interview, she admitted DaShawn and McGill worked for her, providing meals, and that she never gave them money.
Pastor Harris said the reason is that she never got a dime from the federal program. She blames a complicated application process for her failure to get reimbursements.
“The application is very complicated, and it is something I’ve never done before, and that’s why I failed at it because I’ve never done it before. You live and you learn,” she said.
But our investigation found Harris had likely no chance to get funding from the Virginia Department of Health using USDA Funds. Harris was told this by the Virginia Department of Health in October and then in December: “we are unable to process your application.”
10 On Your Side counted over 60 issues on the application which needed to be fixed. Harris updated her application in December, and very little had been corrected. She has not refiled her application.
The fact is, Harris failed to meet the basic federal requirements of the Child and Adult Care Food Program — failing to show she has “internal controls and other management systems in effect to ensure fiscal accountability and to ensure that the program will operate in accordance with the requirements to ensure accountability.”
We pointed out to Harris that she failed by not being properly prepared.
“I was not. I was not approved for it,” she said.
To her credit, Harris is slowly repaying DaShawn Leary the $3,500 she owes him. However, Harris and McGill had not spoken until WAVY.com brought them together by phone. During the conversation, some progress was made.
McGill believes Harris owes her $57,000 which she will never see. Wavy.com asked Harris if she could at least pay back $8,000.
“I will pay her $8,000,” Harris said on camera. “I will pay her $8,000, Mr. Fox, you are witness.”
We then went back to Sherrey McGill and asked her if she would accept the $8,000.
“I will, but I will still proceed with my court [options],” she said.