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Local groups that aid veterans need help year-round; be wary of solicitations from the unfamiliar

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2012 - If you’re looking for a meaningful way to say "thank you" this Veterans Day, organizations that assist area veterans and active duty members of the military are in need of your donations: snack chips and soup, grocery store gift cards, winter hats and gloves, laundry detergent, holiday decorations and cash contributions.

But as St. Louisans salute the nation’s 21.5 million veterans for their service and sacrifice in past and current wars, they should be wary of unfamiliar for-profit fundraisers trying to cash in on their patriotism and goodwill.

We'll start with the nice:

Some local wish lists

* St. Louis Fisher House at Jefferson Barracks

Since officially opening its doors in September 2010, the Fisher House has assisted 954 families of veterans undergoing treatment at St. Louis Veterans Administration medical facilities, said Rachael Fernandez, who manages the house. She puts the value of the free lodging, food and transportation provided by Fisher House at about $1.7 million.

Construction costs for the $5 million, 20-bedroom facility were met by the national Fisher House Foundation and a dedicated band of veterans, business, social and civic organizations that raised more than $2 million locally. While the VA pays for upkeep, utilities and staff, the Fisher House relies on donations for items such as food, clothing and toiletries to help families staying at the facility.

Currently on the wish list: laundry detergent for high-efficiency washers, bleach, dryer sheets, gift cards to local restaurants and grocery stores, household cleaning items.

Fernandez said she would also appreciate decorations -- lights and ornaments -- to make the home feel more festive during the coming holidays and seasonal decorations that could be used throughout the year. She is also looking for volunteers who’d like to bake or cook meals for her guests. Come spring, volunteers will be needed to tend a vegetable and herb garden in the home’s backyard.

"For a house that relies on donations and volunteers, it means so much to the veterans to know their loves ones are being taken care of,’’ Fernandez said.

For information about making a donation or volunteering, visit the contribution page on the Fisher House website or phone 314-894-6145.

* The St. Louis Veterans Home

A donation this Veterans Day would be greatly appreciated, says Julie Goulet, volunteer coordinator with the St. Louis Veterans Home, but she adds that community assistance would be welcome year-round at the facility at 10600 Lewis and Clark Boulevard that provides long-term skilled nursing care for 300 veterans.

The St. Louis home, one of seven funded by the Missouri Veterans Commission, relies on volunteers and community donations to provide extracurriculars: recreational activities and excursions to sporting events or entertainment venues. Goulet says the home is currently conducting a drive to provide warm hats and gloves for the residents. She is also looking for sponsors who would like to fund community outings.

"They’re here to live, not to die,’’ said Goulet, who noted that some residents have no family or friends to visit them.

An Adopt-A-Vet program sponsored by Fifth Third Bank is under way to provide holiday gifts for all veterans residing at the home. Trees with donation envelopes can be found at local bank branches.

To volunteer or donate, visit the website.

* The USO of Missouri

It’s also a time to remember the active duty military personnel who will be passing through the USO facility at Lambert Field by the thousands in the coming weeks, heading home on holiday furloughs.

The local USO is currently collecting new, unwrapped toys for children ages 4 to 10 for a “Santa’s Express” an appreciation event for active duty military families held in December, said Kathy O’Connor, the USO’s executive director.

Also in demand this time of year: cups of instant soup, pudding cups, individual packages of snack chips and dried sausages and beef jerky.

O’Connor emphasized that the local USO relies totally on donations to serve nearly 300,000 military members and their families every year. It is not a government or United Way agency and is funded independently of the national USO. 

O’Connor said she is amazed by the generosity of St. Louisans.

"The community – and our staff – feel it is an honor and a privilege to serve those who would lay down their lives for us,” O’Connor said.

The USO also needs volunteers and cash donations that can be made through the website.

Beware of the unfamiliar 

Dozens of reputable St. Louis charities are doing commendable work for the region’s veterans, often in conjunction with local veterans service organizations.

But before consumers donate to a veterans charity they’ve never heard of, they should ask questions about how much of their contributions will be used for program services vs. fundraising and management expenses, says an investigator with the St. Louis Better Business Bureau.

In recent months the local BBB has issued alerts, suggesting that consumers consider other options before responding to the fundraising activities of two national veterans charities:

  • The Veterans Relief Network, which is linked to Precision Performance Marketing of Kirkwood.
  • The Cars Helping Veterans organization, which advertises its car donation services heavily through local direct mail.

Bill Smith, an investigator with the BBB, said that in addition to the Veterans Relief Network, Precision Performance Marketing has used sweepstakes mailings to raise funds for a host of causes including childhood cancer and autism. The mailings inform people that they may have won thousands of dollars through the sweepstakes but also solicit donations for national charities.
The BBB’s concern with the Veterans Relief Network is its connection to Precision Performance Marketing (PPM) because historically the lion’s share of donations collected for charities by PPM goes to pay for fundraising efforts, Smith said.

"Veterans Relief Network appears to be their newest charity, but in the past they’ve worked with everyone from a disabled police officers group to an autism group to a children’s cancer group. And in all those cases the amount of money that ends up in the hands of the charities is very low -- in most cases anywhere from 3 cents to 11 cents out of each dollar donated by a consumer,” Smith said.

Among the standards used by the BBB to evaluate charities is the requirement that they spend no more than 35 percent of the funds they bring in through fundraising on fundraising.

"Our feeling is that if the consumers knew when they were being solicited either by mail or by phone that such a small percentage actually was going to do the kind of work they were giving the money for, they might think twice about those donations,’’ said Smith.

He also noted that it is illegal for sweepstakes progams to require a donation or purchase to enter.

In general, car donation programs are a big business nationwide, and consumers should recognize that 100 percent of the value of their cars will not go to help the charities, Smith said.

"In fact, the lion’s share of that normally is taken by the for-profit business that runs the car donation program,” Smith said.

In the case of Cars Helping Veterans, Smith said that it appears that some of the people who were involved in setting up the charity are now running the fundraising companies that operate the car donation program.

The BBB has found links between Cars Helping Veterans and Others First, which was founded by Rick Frazier, a Detroit businessman who has a controversial history with other vehicle donation programs.

Smith said the mailings for Cars Helping Veterans often include logos for branches of the military, implying that the program has official approval.

For-profit fundraisers have frequently targeted consumers who want to help veterans, but Smith believes those efforts increased with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"These are people who sacrificed so much for us, and we want to try to pay back to the extent that we can, but people need to take a step back and be extremely cautious when they’re approached by any charity, particularly charities that do solicitations by phone or by mail that they have not heard of before,’’ Smith said.

Smith advises consumers to contact the BBB or check out a charity on the BBB’s website. The BBB will reveal whether a charity has failed to meet BBB standards or whether the charity refused to respond to requests for information.

He also suggests that consumers donate directly to charities rather than through professional fundraisers.

Other resources for consumers include the offices of the Missouri and Illinois attorney generals and websites such as Charity Navigator and Guidestar which provide some free information on nonprofits.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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