Boxed In?

Used-clothing collectors Planet Aid say they’re not in a cult.

The Pitch/May 12, 2005
By Bryan Noonan

After Uli Stosch arrived in Kansas City this past February, something unusual started happening: More than a hundred 7-foot-tall, yellow metal boxes began showing up in parking lots around town. Stosch had contacted managers at restaurants, gas stations, churches and laundromats, asking permission to set up Planet Aid collection boxes outside their businesses.

Stosch, a 37-year-old native of Hamburg, Germany, is Kansas City's operations manager for Planet Aid, a nonprofit based in Holliston, Massachusetts, that collects donated clothing and sells it in bulk to raise money for projects in Third World countries. She wants Planet Aid to be successful in the Midwest, and she's tired of accusations that her organization is associated with a reputed cult.

Planet Aid started in the United States in 1997 and now has about 4,500 collection bins in the Northeast and Midwest; many more have been set up in Canada and Europe. Throughout its years of expanding operations, newspaper reports in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and abroad have questioned Planet Aid's connection to Tvind, a Denmark-based organization that government officials in France and Belgium have declared a cult.

Tvind's founder, Mogens Amdi Petersen, is awaiting trial in Denmark on accusations that he and other Tvind leaders embezzled millions from what was ostensibly a charity.

In the 1970s, Petersen established several schools in Europe to train volunteers for relief efforts in Third World countries. Students had to pay tuition, but many later complained that they had received little or no preparation for their later efforts to build new schools and start agriculture projects in undeveloped nations. Some students reported spending weeks working the streets of foreign cities, asking for donations to fund their missions; they returned home with allegations that Tvind project leaders had made them work and stay in poor, sometimes dangerous conditions.

Over the years, the money the group raised was allegedly allowing Petersen to live in luxury on an island off Miami Beach.

Tvind projects are overseen by the Teachers Group, which Petersen allegedly founded. Members of the Teachers Group -- Stosch estimates there are between 500 and 700 -- pool their salaries and commit themselves to working on relief and education projects in poor nations.

In a May 2000 story, The London Times reported that "Though few Danes deem Tvind a cult -- it is more often seen as a fringe political movement -- it shares many characteristics described by the Cult Information Centre: a centralized organization with a powerful leader, dedicated to its own survival and recruiting new members."

After dozens of complaints by men and women who signed up at Tvind schools, governments in Europe began warning young people to stay away from the Teachers Group and Tvind. According to one former member's affidavit, those in the Teachers Group were expected to contribute all of their assets (including personal property, money they'd earned in the past and any money they inherited) to the common pool. Having children, the former member stated, was discouraged. The former member identified Petersen as the cult leader and claimed that Teachers Group members were told never to speak his name. After the group began setting up outposts in the United States, Virginia authorities closed one school after determining that the money given by the state was not being used to help the school.

In the 1980s, the Teachers Group established other spinoff organizations, including Great Britain's Planet Aid UK, a for-profit business that relied almost entirely on selling donated clothing to make money (though it pledged to give a portion of its surplus to relief projects).

In 1997, the Teachers Group began opening Planet Aid offices in the United States. Stosch says Planet Aid collected 42 million pounds of clothing last year, which can fetch 15 to 25 cents a pound when it's sold in bulk.

Stosch, a member of the Teachers Group for 12 years, says group members live by a philosophy that they will share their money and time in order to dedicate their lives to helping Third World countries. "For me, it means I am part of a lot of people who have similar values," she says. "I have a regular life. I drive. I live in a place. To me, it's not the commune style."

Stosch, who says she met Petersen in the early 1990s, gets angry about reports that the Teachers Group is a cult. She says she has been asked whether women in the Teachers Group were forbidden to have children. "It's a bunch of bullshit," she says.

Fred Olsson, general manager for Planet Aid's New England operation and a member of the Teachers Group, tells the Pitch that the 42 million pounds of clothing collected by Planet Aid last year grossed around $8 million. After paying for more than 100 employees, 25 trucks and 8 warehouses scattered across the United States and spending about 5 percent on administrative fees, Planet Aid was able to donate about $1.8 million to international aid in 12 countries, he says.

Stosch's goal is to establish a lucrative Planet Aid operation in the Kansas City metro area by the end of the year.

Jarvis Williams, a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Center at 75th and Wyandotte streets, says Stosch had her eye on a collection bin outside his business that was used during a recent homeless event, Care of Poor People. "She saw the pod out there that we were filling with donations of clothes, and when the pod left, she said, 'How would you like to put our bins up?'" Williams says. Since then, she has come by two or three times a week to pick up donations.

"Ours fill up really fast," Williams says. "We've been in the homeless business a long time."

Williams says he assumed that Stosch had another job to support her while she did her charity work. When he asked her what she did, Stosch told him that Planet Aid was her full-time job.

Stosch declined to tell the Pitch her salary. "Whatever I don't need, I pool together for different projects," she says. "For me, there's a security. If I'm sick at some point, someone will take care of me."

Mike McLaughlin, owner of Grace, a Bistro on the Edge at the corner of Troost and Gregory, says Stosch approached him about a month ago to ask if she could set up a donation box beside his restaurant. McLaughlin says he felt comfortable because he had noticed the yellow collection boxes sprouting across town.

"Clothing drive for world aid?" McLaughlin says with a shrug. "I don't think people ask who or what or why if it seems to be for a good cause."

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