Former Hope Children's Home residents say they didn't get to keep all gifts sponsors gave them

Community groups throw dozens of parties annually
Posted at 6:49 PM, Nov 21, 2016

When you donate to a charity, you expect the gift to go where they say it's going. But several former residents of Hope Children’s Home say that wasn’t their experience.

The month of December is busy at Tampa's Hope Children's Home.

“We had the whole month of December dedicated to going to Christmas parties,” said former Hope Children’s Home resident Jillian Butler.

“Three or four parties a day from Thanksgiving on,” said Chris Atzert, who also lived at the home.

There's no school all month.

"We are at many times in two or three places a day for many of those days,” said Hope Children’s Home Executive Director Mike Higgins. “We do not solicit parties, we do not solicit folks giving gifts to the children. We don't have gift drives. We don't do that.”

But images from Hope's website and social media do ask for gift cards and toys wish lists for the home. And civic clubs, businesses and schools posted plenty of pictures of parties on social media.

Nine former Hope kids say they each made 100-item wish-lists each year and were individually adopted by multiple sponsors. 

“You weren't allowed to talk about parties that you went to earlier that day or a party you were having that night,” said former Hope resident Elaine Heeley.

“They told us don't say anything about the other party we were just at. Don't say anything at all,” said Butler.

"If people asked about them, like if we had any other gifts, we had to tell them no," said former Hope resident Austin Atzert.

One group sent out an email message to members in September asking members to spend up to $100 per child.  

“The kids get more than they need. I'll say that,” Higgins said, but later told us there were "only a handful of engagements where a child might receive anywhere near $100 worth of gifts”.  

As for the gifts themselves, “You’d get to keep some of them, not all of them,” said Austin Atzert.

At the end of each party, former residents say staff members collected some gifts.

Higgins said these were items that children had already received from other sponsors.

“It doesn't do a child good to get two dump trucks or two fire trucks or whatever,” he said.

Higgins says kids can later pick out toys collected for their birthdays.

“It's kind of like a little Toys-R-Us there actually,” Higgins said, describing the storage building where the extra toys are kept.

Staff members collect all gift cards. 

“I got a lot of checks, and gift cards and cash. I'd always have to turn that stuff in,” said former Hope Children’s Home resident John Werst.

“We do try to get folks to give them gift cards as opposed to tangible gifts,” Higgins said.

“I'd turn them in and he was like alright, you'll see that later on. I never saw any of it,” said Werst.

“It's acknowledged it's for that child and it's all very systematically kept track of,” said Higgins, who says names are written on gift cards and they are kept in folders for each child.

But he wouldn't share that tracking information with us.

He did say kids would use cards on special occasions throughout the year. 

“Before family vacation every year, we give them all their gift cards and let them go to Wal-Mart, Target, where ever their gift card's from and buy snacks and treats and things to take on their trip. We give them gift cards or cash or monies they might have to buy church outfits, Easter outfits if they desire and also throughout the year as they have needs or wants, that money is there for them.

“If you kept a tally of everything that everyone gave, it would not come close to what we got to spend,” said Werst.

Metropolitan Ministries C.E.O. Tim Marks isn't associated with Hope, but speaking in general about charities, says gifts should be used exactly as donors’ intended.

“You bring us a turkey, the turkey goes to the family. You bring us a toy, we're gonna make sure it goes to a child,” said Marks.

Marks says any other practice can threaten confidence in charities.

Higgins says every donation to a child or to the home is put to good use.

“It seems like a lot at the time, but when you figure it's 365 days a year and a lot of children in and out of our program, it goes quickly,” he said.

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