Bins fund Siskiyou nonprofit

Sonoma Index-Tribune/September 14, 2004
By Sarah Berkley

Those big green clothing recycling bins that recently popped up around Sonoma may not be as straightforward as they look.

One thing is certain - they don't help local causes and they're raising more than a few eyebrows at Sonoma charities that also collect clothes.

The nine bins across town are located on private property and have been there for roughly a month. The logo "Gaia" emblazoned upon them reveals an earth encircled by a daisy and is accompanied by text promising that any donated clothing goes to people "who need them more than you."

Although there is no phone number, contact information or Web site on the bins, they do list the name of a Siskiyou County nonprofit group, "Campus California TG" (CCTG). That group describes itself as "an educational and charitable organization working with creating positive development."

Rather than being donated, all clothes put in the bins are packaged up and resold to thrift stores. The money then supports the Campus California TG center in the small town of Etna. It has been described by local sources as a New Age commune that mostly keeps to itself.

"Kids come there from all over the world," said Siskiyou Daily News reporter John Diehm.

He said the CCTG center keeps a very low profile and is nearly invisible to the local community. Goings-on have always been "somewhat of a mystery," he said.

The purpose of the Etna center, according to CCTG materials, is to train young volunteers to go into development projects in Third-World countries and assist in humanitarian causes, such as AIDS education.

Funds raised by the sale of the donated clothing allows the center to sustain its activities. Some money goes to partial scholarships to offset the $33,000 tuition for volunteers' six-month training at Campus California and their trip abroad as well.

In 2002, CCTG had revenues of $350,000, according to nonprofit database GuideStar.

And although its representatives said otherwise, CCTG appears to be affiliated with an international network of humanitarian organizations that have been investigated for fiscal impropriety. The CCTG Web site contains numerous direct connections to projects sponsored by these other organizations.

At the apex of the network is the controversial Danish "Tvind." Founded in 1978, Tvind consisted of a group of activists and instructors that ran "traveling folk high schools" and commune-style "teacher groups" - which is what the "TG" stands for in Campus California TG.

According to a May 2004 article in the Chicago Tribune, prosecutors allege that Tvind has morphed "from a countercultural teachers collective into a criminal enterprise," that intertwines charities with for-profit business ventures.

Tvind is defined by some as a nonreligious cult.

In 2002, after 22 years in hiding - including a luxurious lifestyle in the United States - Tvind founder Mogens Amdi Pedersen was extradited back to Denmark, where he is facing charges of $9 million in embezzlement and $11 million in tax evasion. In Belgium, he has been charged with money laundering.

Other top Tvind charity founders have also been indicted, and the multiple organizations under its "umbrella" have been investigated.

Even as high-profile allegations unfurl in Europe, Tvind has already become established in the United States via a complex network of fund-raising operations that exist today, including the clothing collection businesses.

The Chicago-based Gaia charity, which boasts the same name and logo as the bins here in town, reported earnings of $2 million from 1999 to 2002, according to the Chicago Tribune. Although those green bins are scattered across the city, the promised environmental projects "have yet to materialize," according to the Tribune.

Humana People to People - a Tvind-founded organization - in fact pays CCTG to train volunteers, who then go to Humana-sponsored pro-jects overseas, according to CCTG representatives.

Humana is also the parent organization for the multi-million dollar clothing recycling-organization Planet Aid.

In an April 2002 article in the Boston Globe, a Planet Aid official acknowledged that the organization donates only 6 percent of its clothing collection money to charity. The article said the British government took a similar clothing recycling operation run by Humana People to People, "into receivership in 1998, after investigators could not determine what had happened to money from the clothing sales."

Humana People to People and Gaia are linked to Campus California TG's Web site, and three of the CCTG's boardmembers are members of Humana People to People and Planet Aid.

Still, Campus California representative Bobby Williamson said the organizations only share common humanitarian interests and the same communal model of pedagogy, but not questionable funding practices.

"We're our own entity," said Williamson. Just like all 501-C3 nonprofits, "We do an audit every year and we have a public report for people to see."

He added, "We understand there has been a lot of controversy," but remained confident that people could see CCTG's own activities have a noble purpose. He has volunteered on a development pro-ject in Africa.

Williamson said that Campus California will pay people or volunteers to find sites to put clothing bins and that there was not a specific CCTG representative living in the Sonoma area. He added that clothing bin representatives always seek permission from property owners.

Because the bins are situated on private property, CCTG does not need to get a special encroachment permit from the city, according to Sonoma City Clerk Gay Rainsbarger.

There are currently 150 bins in the Bay Area funding CCTG's center in rural Etna; they result in a weekly average of 280 pounds of clothes in each bin. That adds up to 42,000 pounds of clothing weekly from the Bay Area. CCTG representatives pick up clothes once or twice a week and take them to a warehouse in Oakland, where they are baled and resold to thrift stores.

Williamson's full-time job is to oversee clothing collection operations. To allay local charities' reservations, he said that "It's usually been our experience that there are so many clothes out there to actually collect" that the bins wouldn't siphon off local clothing-donation activities.

He said that whenever possible CCTG works in cooperation with city governments and recycling agencies. He also added that the lack of contact information on bins was "a mistake" and that CCTG representatives had just run out of the stickers that bear CCTG's federal identification number. They would be up soon, he said.

That still doesn't assuage worries from some local charities. One of the nine local Gaia collection bins is located directly across Highway 12 from the headquarters of the Valley's all-volunteer nonprofit, FISH (Friends In Sonoma Helping).

Clothing needs in Sonoma are still "great," according to Jean Mumme, clothing collection director for FISH.

Unlike CCTG bins, "Our clothes are distributed free of charge to needy residents in Sonoma Valley."

Clothes contributed to FISH are never resold. "Even if we have a surplus, we take it to the homeless or a women's shelter in Santa Rosa," she said.

Clothes can always be donated to FISH at 18330 Highway 12, through the clothing bag slot in the door or during collection hours, between 10 a.m. and noon on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

The CCTG representatives who approached local property owners last month have been described as informative and polite; they have come bearing CCTG educational brochures about their causes as well as contact information.

Although one of the clothing recycling bins is already located at Safeway, store manager Chad Cummings said he has been investigating the organization as well.

"We want to try and give them (CCTG) the benefit of the doubt, especially if they are a good organization," he said.

Cummings added that if found it to be otherwise, the bin would be removed.

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