Troubleshooter: Group of moms trying to put the brakes on a local charity

Diane Wilson Image
Sunday, April 12, 2015
Group of moms trying to put the brakes on a local charity
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Troubleshooter investigates a local charity after a group of moms contacted her about posts on Facebook, which they claimed are misleading.

A local charity has been getting the attention of many for the heartbreaking stories it shares on social media. But some locals are calling the photos, and the charity into question.

"OCX2ON" is short for "One Church! One Can! One Night!" and is a local non-profit that's mission is to help those in need of emergency shelter and food.

The charity solicits donations where a lot of caring moms and people will notice, on Facebook, with heart-wrenching pictures attached.

"Pictures that were very sad, pictures that would make you say, 'Oh my gosh, I want to help them, I can relate to that,'" donor Tonya Palumbo said.

Palumbo is one of more than a dozen women, who contacted us, after doing some amateur sleuthing, and finding out some of the pictures were not what they seemed. They started their own Facebook page warning others to beware.

We took their concerns to the charity's founder, Dr. Melanie Stewart, who also runs the private "Johnathan's House Christian School" in Fuquay-Varina.

"We don't do it the traditional way and that scares a lot of people," Stewart said.

And referring to the Facebook photos, she said the goal was to grab everyone's attention.

And she did. Stewart posted one picture showing an abused local mom, with the caption, "They have food for now, but lights will be cut off Monday, her bill is $400. Please inbox me for any amount at all."

But that was not a local mom. The picture was taken directly from the internet where the story can be found on many news organizations websites. We found the same picture in the London, England "Daily Mail" website and it's a mug shot of a random woman charged with beating up her boyfriend.

She also posted a picture of a van, claiming it belonged to a homeless family of seven who were living in it, not far from Stewart's private school.

But that was not the real story behind the picture. It was actually ripped from a New York post article about former funk legend Sly Stone living in his van in L.A.

The pictures of people "in need" turn out to be random pictures found online.

"So crucify me for using a photo that I probably should not have used," Stewart said.

Stewart said she uses copied photos to protect her clients.

"I try and find a van that looks similar to theirs and just give people a visual of what it would be like in a van hooked up to something, so I just google it and use this picture," Stewart said.

We asked Stewart if she knew that this was illegal, she said that she does now.

"If you want to crucify me that I used some pictures that maybe I shouldn't have or did not have permission then, then crucify me," Stewart said.

We informed her that it causes people to question her integrity.

"No, no, no, what causes them to question my integrity is the fact as to whether or not I'm going to do something. I'm a doer, I'm a mountain mover, I want these people off the street," Stewart said.

But the moms also question whether Stewart is doing everything she claims.

Take the case of Franki Pearl, who Stewart helped pay an overdue electric bill. But she was then promised more money by Stewart from selling art which Pearl's daughter Bella painted.

"She said we're going to do a website and it's called 'Bella's World' and we're going to get you paint and supplies," Pearl said.

Stewart did the website, and Cathy Russell donated $50 and chipped in five new canvasses so Bella could keep painting.

"I felt moved by this family, three children and this poor mother and donated $50," Russell said.

But Bella's mom said she never got Russell's donation.

"Every time I asked her about the art supplies, I would get no answers," Pearl said.

We asked Stewart about it.

"We did not have anything donated for Bella," she said.

So we showed her proof of Russell's donation.

"You're right. You're exactly right, and we took it to her," Stewart said.

Stewart insisted that Bella received the donations, but Bella's mom insists that isn't true.

We asked if donations always get to the right people.

"For the most part, I believe so. We try and make every effort. And sometimes if donations come in and we can't locate that person, we try and give it to someone in need," Stewart said.

After we started our investigation, Bella, the little artist, received a $600 check for two sold paintings. Stewart said one sold for $250 and the other for $350.

Another concern for some of the women, they say Stewart would ask for money despite it being posted several times on her website and Facebook posts the charity is cash free.

"She said she doesn't take cash donations but then she was giving her PayPal account she was giving her PayPal information and that wasn't to an organization that was to her private PayPal account" Palumbo said.

"We don't ask for money," Stewart said.

We showed her post after post where she asked for money.

"Whenever I said it that we don't take money, our organization doesn't. I don't get paid. We don't take money for pay," Stewart said.

She said any money she collects goes to the needy, and she will eventually prove it in court.

"It's in our lawsuit that we're filing against some very hateful people," Stewart said.

She said she is going to sue the women who have questioned her charity and her credibility. These women also said Stewart does not have a Ph.D. from Duke, as her Facebook claimed. We asked her about her education.

"I'm going to address it in the lawsuit," she said.

Stewart's title, "Dr." is displayed all around her private school, but Duke told us, while she did attend divinity school for a year, they don't offer Ph.D's and Stewart did not get a degree.

"If people gave to me because I have a Ph.D., then they gave for the wrong reasons," she said. "It's not required to run a school. To do either one of the things that I do, a Ph.D. is not required for either one."

She did introduce us to some of her success stories.

"Baby Noah and his mom and dad came to us when he was two weeks old and they were actually living in their car," Stewart said.

Families she has helped, like Katherine and Patrick along with their baby Noah, were living in their car and gave Stewart credit for getting them back on their feet.

"Within minutes we had what we needed. We had a place to go that night. We had shelter. We had food, gas," Katherine said.

And Stewart said she is not going to stop helping people, despite the naysayers.

"We are changing and evolving everyday so that we can be more efficient so that we can reach more people," Stewart said.

And part of that is learning the state law. Stewart's charity is a registered nonprofit, but is non-tax exempt. When asked why she was promising tax deductions for donations, she said she didn't know it was illegal, and she would stop.

She also changed her website and Facebook page, taking down the "no cash donations" policy, the copied photos to solicit donations, and references to a Ph.D. from Duke. When it comes to Stewart's Ph.D. she now claims she got it from a Baptist college in Louisiana, but she says the school was not accredited and changed names several times and she has no paperwork or proof that she got her doctorate from the school back in the 90s. She says she misplaced the paperwork.

We just learned that OCX2ON was issued an advisory letter by the NC Secretary of State's Charitable Solicitation Licensing Division. A rep with the state claims the charity is in violation of the Charitable Solicitation Act when they posted on the charity's website under a blog post that the NC Secretary of State encourages OCX2ON to continue to grow and continue helping senior citizens. According to the NC Secretary of State's Office, this is not true as they do not endorse organizations just because they issue a license or letter of exemption. The State is requiring OCX2ON to immediately cease and desist making any statement that would indicate an endorsement by the department.

Also in the advisory letter, it's stated that the Charitable Solicitation Licensing's investigation of OCX2ON's website and Facebook page indicates that the organization may have received contributions above $25,000 in a calendar year. The state is asking OCX2ON to provide CSL with an itemized accounting of all contributions, including in-kind contributions OCX2ON has received from June 3, 2014 - February 28, 2015.

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