No turkey trot. Donors slip away from sex trafficking nonprofit

Courage House Facebook page featuring founder Jenny Williamson.
Courage House Facebook page featuring founder Jenny Williamson. Facebook

As the Big Day of Giving rolled through the Sacramento region Thursday, one formerly high-profile group was absent from the roster of charities reaping its rewards.

Courage House, a former Big Day of Giving recipient, closed its Sacramento-area home for sex-trafficking victims nearly a year ago. This hasn’t stopped its founder, Jenny Williamson of Granite Bay, from continued fundraising.

Now, however, some of the group’s longtime revenue sources are drying up.

Three substantial benefactors recently have backed away from the once-thriving operation, cutting off more than $1 million in potential new funding.

The losses reveal the tenuous nature of a charity that once espoused global aspirations. For years, Williamson and her Rocklin-based nonprofit, Courage Worldwide Inc., had been the subject of glowing media accounts after opening a group home for young sex-trafficking victims on 52 acres north of Sacramento. A second home was opened that same year in the East African nation of Tanzania. In California and in other states, Williamson drummed up millions in donations while promising an aggressive worldwide expansion plan. The organization also received more than $9,000 a month in public money last year for each girl in its Sacramento-area home.

Then, last year, The Bee reported that Courage Worldwide had quietly shut down its Northern California home without notifying prospective donors. The Bee’s series of stories also revealed that Courage House had been hit with a string of licensing violations that far exceeded the statewide average for facilities of similar size and classification.

At the time, Williamson downplayed the closure as a brief “pause” to help the group get ready for new state licensing requirements. By the end of 2016, though, Courage Worldwide had lost at least $600,000 in donations and grants.

That pullback has continued.

Last month, the organization was informed that the Sacramento Region Community Foundation was dropping it from the Big Day of Giving, which had raised $57,000 for Courage House since 2014. A top official at the foundation, which runs the annual online fundraising day for nonprofits, made it clear that Courage House had failed to meet its standards for inclusion.

This followed a rejection by the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which turned down a Dec. 15 funding proposal from Courage Worldwide Inc. The group had requested $997,338 in grant money to pay for staffing, office and apartment rentals, laptops and the hiring of a “director of real estate development” to help the group expand its operations.

Now Williamson has been told by Elk Grove officials that they will not issue a permit for the Elk Grove Turkey Trot, an annual Thanksgiving Day fundraiser the organization has depended upon since 2011. The fun run has raised $85,000 for Courage House over the past three years.

All three entities cited the same reason for pulling back support: They weren’t able to determine that Courage House was providing any services or benefits to the region’s residents.

“The fact that they do not have a house or program operating in the region that would directly benefit Elk Grove residents we felt was enough to not authorize issuing a permit,” said Kristyn Nelson, the city’s public affairs manager.

Elk Grove typically provided traffic control and police support for the run, which has attracted 5,342 participants since 2014, according to city records. In an April 27 letter, City Manager Laura Gill told Williamson the city would not provide such support this year, and it wouldn’t issue the group a permit.

The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services cited a similar reason in rejecting Courage Worldwide’s request for nearly $1 million in funding, saying that “to be eligible for this funding, entities must currently be providing housing assistance and counseling to human trafficking victims.” The state agency has awarded grant money to Courage House in the past.

“At the time Courage Worldwide applied for this grant, it was not providing housing assistance and counseling to human trafficking victims in California,” OES officials wrote in response to queries from The Bee.

The decisions are the latest in a series of financial blows to Courage Worldwide, which had staked out a reputation as an international leader in the fight against sex trafficking.

Courage Worldwide had been touting both the Turkey Trot and the Big Day of Giving on its Facebook page as ideal opportunities for donors to contribute, and the group maintains that it is moving forward with fundraising as part of its plans to reopen and expand.

“All our fundraising supports the mission and vision of Courage Worldwide and its programs here in the U.S. and Tanzania,” the organization said in an email to The Bee.

Over the past 11 months, with the home shuttered, Williamson has issued a series of reasons for why it has not reopened. She said last year she expected to reopen by the end of 2016. She told the Office of Emergency Services, in her December grant proposal, that “Our goal is to reopen in early 2017 fully prepared to continue our work.” The group now says the operation cannot reopen until it has three months of operating expenses in the bank.

In its email, Courage Worldwide said three months of operating costs amount to “about $250,000 for a program serving girls under 18.”

Despite the lack of operations, Courage House has maintained its ambitious fundraising schedule. On May 5, it held a golf tournament at Roseville’s Morgan Creek Golf Club that charged $700 per foursome. An August triathlon at the Plumas Pines Resort costs $90 per participant.

Courage House, which had been serving girls 11 to 17, now appears to be attempting to expand its operations beyond that age group. In an announcement on its Facebook page, the group said it is seeking to provide services to the 40 former residents of the house who are now 18 or older.

“We have hired a Human Trafficking Case Manager for our over 18 population, who will be tasked with providing our former residents, as well as any trafficking victims in the community, with the resources that will assist them in becoming independent and successful,” the group said in its email response, sent by volunteer spokesman Bill Halldin. “Those resources will include, but are not limited to, housing, tuition, therapy, legal services, mentors, day care vouchers for their children, counseling and more.”

In its email to The Bee, organization officials said they “also continue to work with law enforcement, schools and other groups, making presentations and training programs about sex trafficking for more than 2,000 people over the last four months alone.

“We are working on new efforts with prisons, district attorney offices and others to educate people about sex trafficking and how to identify it,” the email stated.

With its Sacramento-area home closed, Courage Worldwide is focusing on its operation in Tanzania, where it says it operates a home that houses 11 girls and two babies.

The group was able to purchase a larger property it says can accommodate 40 to 45 girls as a result of a fundraiser by a San Pedro Lutheran congregation that raised $60,000.

Pastor Nathan Hoff of Trinity Lutheran Church said his congregation was moved to raise the funds after he visited the operation in Tanzania with two close friends – Stephanie and Joel Midthun, who work with Courage House.

Hoff told The Bee that he had never before met Williamson and that he was aware of media coverage of Courage House’s difficulties in the past year.

“We did our due diligence and looking into financials, and where there were concerns we got on the phones and said, ‘What about this?’ ” Hoff said. “And I’d say every conversation increased our sobriety and also our confidence that we were on the right track and feeling this was a right use of our resources.”

Hoff said he believes the operation in Tanzania provides an important service, but said there have been no conversations about helping to reopen the Northern California home.

“We have a great sense of call and excitement about what’s going on in Tanzania, and we’re just very excited about the future,” Hoff said, adding that his church has never before raised funds for an outside organization.

The congregation of about 225 donated or sought funds through social media and raised the $60,000 in “one hour shy of a week,” Hoff said in an interview.

“It was nothing less than a miracle,” he added in a video posted on Courage Worldwide’s Facebook page.

Jenny Williamson talks about her plans to expand Courage House in a 2015 interview with The Sacramento Bee

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom

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