The Public Eye

Shuttered home for sex trafficking victims cut from major charity event

Courage House founder Jenny Williamson has talked of expanding her operation to 1,000 homes worldwide, but her Northern California home has remained closed since last June amid questions over fundraising and state inspections.
Courage House founder Jenny Williamson has talked of expanding her operation to 1,000 homes worldwide, but her Northern California home has remained closed since last June amid questions over fundraising and state inspections. The Sacramento Bee

In another blow to Courage Worldwide’s efforts to reopen its Northern California home for sex trafficking victims, a major charitable fundraising organization has dropped the group from its annual Big Day of Giving because of concerns over its operation.

The Sacramento Region Community Foundation, which sponsors an annual online donation event that has raised $16 million for area nonprofits since 2013, last week removed Courage Worldwide Inc. from the website devoted to the May 4 Big Day of Giving. The highly anticipated event allows donors 24 hours to visit the giving website and designate an amount to be directed toward any of a diverse offering of regional groups.

“In the end, there were just too many inconsistencies,” said Shirlee Tully, the foundation’s chief marketing and development officer. “We just weren’t comfortable, frankly.”

Bill Halldin, a spokesman for Courage Worldwide, said officials were surprised by the decision. He said that Courage Worldwide had been in talks with the foundation as late as April 20 to update the profile that would be used to describe the group’s operations on the Big Day of Giving site.

“We were in the process of updating our organization profile that had been used in prior Big Day of Giving events and, unfortunately, were unable to complete that profile update before the deadline set by the Big Day of Giving staff,” he said.

Courage Worldwide’s home for girls ages 11 to 17, called Courage House, was voluntarily closed in June 2016 and since has suffered a number of financial setbacks as donors have backed away from the group. The Rocklin-based organization opened the local home in 2011 on about 50 acres of countryside north of Sacramento after its founder, Jenny Williamson, described being called to the work by a vision from God.

A Sacramento Bee investigation last year found that despite closing its doors, Courage Worldwide continued aggressive fundraising efforts for two months without making any public announcement that it had stopped serving clients in the Sacramento region. The group did not announce its decision to “pause” operations at Courage House until two days after The Bee inquired about its status.

Since word of the closure spread, donors have backed away from at least $600,000 in planned contributions, The Bee found.

The facility remains licensed by the state as a children’s group home and was receiving $9,100 a month per girl last year in government money. Beginning this year, the facility – if it has clients again – would become eligible for about $12,000 a month per girl under a new state system.

The foundation’s decision to cut off Courage Worldwide’s access to the Big Day of Giving is expected to further cut into the group’s efforts to reopen the home, which can accommodate up to six girls, and has been a focus of its fundraising efforts in years past.

“Each year the Sacramento area comes together on the Big Day of Giving to support local nonprofits and Courage Worldwide is one of them!” Courage Worldwide announced on its Facebook page April 14, one week before the foundation removed the group from its website. “This year’s Big Day of Giving will be held on May 4, 2017. Stay tuned for more information, and donate on May 4 so that your dollar goes farther with matching funds available!”

Foundation records indicate Courage Worldwide has raised $57,217.26 through the Big Day of Giving since 2014.

Tully said Courage Worldwide went through the latest application process and met deadlines, which included a submission of a profile explaining its program and mission. The decision to drop the group came after “a lot of back and forth” between the foundation and Courage Worldwide, she said.

“The profile just wasn’t making sense,” Tully said. “We couldn’t really pinpoint what they were doing in the local area.”

She said the foundation doesn’t make recommendations or try to influence donors. But the foundation is committed to ensuring that recipients are directly benefiting the four-county region, she said.

Courage Worldwide officials have said they hoped to reopen the house by the end of last year, but so far have not done so. Meanwhile, the group has maintained its fundraising efforts, saying it still operates a home in the East African nation of Tanzania where it is serving 11 girls and two toddlers. A letter Williamson sent in February said the group joined with a local church that month to send a board member, a Courage Worldwide staffer and four volunteers to Tanzania to visit and train “hundreds and hundreds of pastors, as well as community leaders to recognize trafficking situations and identify victims.”

“In 2017, we will reopen Courage House Northern California and expand Courage House Tanzania,” Williamson wrote, adding that “our only barrier to reopen is raising three months operating costs to recruit, hire, and train the staff needed to welcome home residents.”

Courage House has boasted for years of its plans to expand operations, saying it hoped to open a series of Courage Cafes, expand its California operation to house 60 girls, and open new houses in other locations that included Hawaii, Texas, Mississippi and India. Williamson has been the most visible ambassador, flying around the country to pitch her vision and enlist new donors, often from large church congregations.

To date, none of the expansions has occurred, but the organization continues its fundraising efforts.

Its Facebook page lists a number of attempts to draw donor funds, including a crafts auction scheduled for the end of April, a three-day “Courage Weekend” event in Southern California last week, a training session at Napa Valley College last month, registration for a race in November and a charity golf tournament scheduled for May 5 that charges $700 per foursome.

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom

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