Charity finds Rock Hill donation boxes swapped with another nonprofit

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comNovember 2, 2013 

One of several donation boxes reportedly stolen.

JONATHAN MCFADDEN — Jonathan McFadden

A charity collecting clothes and shoes for the needy told police its large, yellow donation boxes have once again been repainted and relabeled to solicit donations for another nonprofit currently facing suspension and a $2,000 fine.

Gena Carruthers, territory manager for Planet Aid, told Rock Hill police last week she had been tracking down the theft of six donation bins, into which donors drop clothes and other supplies for people in need, according to a police report.

Two of those boxes were found in Rock Hill: one at Sawyer’s Cleaners and the other at Tuesday Morning, both on Cherry Road.

In June 2012, Planet Aid reported that donation boxes had been stolen from a Mexican restaurant, a car detail shop and a car dealership in Gastonia, N.C., according to police records there. Police did not have any suspects or leads to follow.

About three months ago, Carruthers said, she found one of the stolen boxes near Carowinds amusement park in Fort Mill while driving past the Comfort Inn & Suites. The box had been repainted green and a logo reading “Helping Hands” covered information about Planet Aid, she said. A month later, Carruthers found a second bin in Lancaster, also repainted green and affixed with a Helping Hands sticker, she said.

Within the past several months, boxes have been taken, repainted green and sketched with the words “Helping Hands of Carolina” before they were set out again, the police report states. Planet Aid’s boxes are yellow and have a distinct shape, Carruthers said.

The items Planet Aid collects help support development projects overseas, help the environment and provide items to the needy and homeless. Planet Aid is supported by business owners and others who allow the organization to place boxes on their property at malls, shopping centers, convenience stores and churches.

Donated clothes are sent to warehouses, where they are sold to thrift stores or directly to overseas customers.

“Each bin represents a significant investment for us,” Carruthers said, “and it leaves us with one less donation bin.”

Of the six boxes Carruthers told police were missing, she said she has found one in Lancaster County and the rest in York County.

Helping Hands of Carolina, headquartered in Lancaster, collects and sends donated items to Haiti and cares for people suffering from breast cancer and HIV, said Marie Simons, the nonprofit’s founder.

The painted boxes were not stolen, she said, but had been at their posted locations at least since 2007, originally belonging to another nonprofit that state officials confirm has since dissolved. That group allowed Helping Hands to use their boxes, said Simons, adding that the paint must have chipped to expose yellow coloring underneath.

The boxes, she said, never belonged to Planet Aid, where she worked for a year in Greenville.

Deputies have tried repeatedly to interview Simons, without success , according to a police report.

Last month, Carruthers discovered two repainted Planet Aid boxes in front of Cato’s in York, according to a York Police Department report. She said she found a repainted box in front of Sawyer’s Cleaners in Rock Hill on Monday. The owner told her that someone had been collecting the items from the box, she said. Carruthers said she found another box outside Tuesday Morning. Store manager Valerie Shillinglaw said it had been there for at least two years.

People put “all kinds of stuff” in the box, Shillinglaw said, including dishes, a baby carriage and a rocking horse.

“They’ve been racking up,” she said.

Carruthers estimated the boxes’ value at $1,000 each, but police say their value is $600 each.

Police do not believe the boxes were stolen in Rock Hill but instead taken from other areas and placed in the city, said Executive Officer Mark Bollinger of the Rock Hill Police Department. Carruthers said Planet Aid never placed boxes in Rock Hill.

She realized last week that the boxes in Rock Hill belonged to Planet Aid because of their distinct shape, she said.

“When I see a green bin, of course I’m going to check it out,” she said.

Police have allowed Planet Aid to reclaim the boxes Carruthers found in Rock Hill last week because she provided serial numbers matching both bins, Bollinger said.

Facing suspension

The nonprofit charity Helping Hands faces suspension by the South Carolina Secretary of State after officials learned the organization had been soliciting contributions without properly registering with the state, according to a letter from the agency.

The group last registered with the state in 2008, but its tax-exempt status expired in 2009, said Shannon Wiley, deputy general counsel for the Secretary of State. All registrations, including those for tax-exempt nonprofits, must be renewed each year if the organization is soliciting any kind of contributions.

State officials received a complaint that the organization was soliciting while not registered, Wiley said, and her office sent a notice of violation on Oct. 18. Helping Hands received it on Oct. 21. As of that date, the group had 15 days to come into compliance or risk paying a $2,000 fine. If the group does not come into compliance, it will be suspended and the state will file an administrative injunction against the organization, asking a judge to shut the organization down until the fines are paid.

“When you do fundraising, you need to renew it,” Simons said. “I forgot to renew it. I don’t do fundraising ... we don’t have time to do fundraising.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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