WACO, TX — A charity that has given to the community for over 30 years, Project Angel Tree, has come under fire after a recent Facebook post posted on July 3.
Project Angel Tree is an organization that has donated thousands of presents to the children of incarcerated parents.
Central Texas News Now was a media sponsor for the charity. But now, the leadership at Project Angel Tree is being questioned by families who have donated in the past. The recent Facebook post revealed a volunteer with the organization was suspected of theft. The Facebook post said that a woman who had donated to the organization was puzzled when she was working at a retail store and found a suspicious return receipt.
The receipt was her own. And the receipt was for her donation to Project Angel Tree.
Shortly after the Facebook post, the volunteer was arrested.
People responding to the Facebook thread lashed out immediately:
Those comments were just a small taste of the big reaction from the Facebook thread posted on July 3 regarding a family's "bad" experience with the donation process at Project Angel Tree in December of 2018. The post garnered more than 353 comments and was shared 521 times.
PROJECT ANGEL TREE: HOW DOES IT WORK?
From an interview with Central Texas News Now in 2017 regarding Project Angel Tree's annual holiday gift drive, anchor Ann Harder asked Sharon Eads, the director of the organization, how it all works.
"And you also have ladies that will do the shopping as well?" asked Ann Harder.
Eads responded, "Oh yes, we do."
Women shopping for gifts was the main focus of the viral Facebook post, with one particular woman being mentioned several times - volunteer Charabe Lampert.
She was accused of allegedly taking gifts that are for the children and returning them to stores in exchange for cash/gift cards to buy gifts for her own family.
Last week, she turned herself in to the Waco Police Department and was charged with a Class A misdemeanor - theft over $100 from a nonprofit organization.
25 Investigates spoke with Adam Price with the Better Business Bureau. He gave his general input of what should be happening at a nonprofit organization.
"It's the volunteers that are the face of the organization much of the time. And if the volunteers are the face of your organization you want to make sure you can trust them and you have gone through a vetting process whether it's just a simple screening, an interview or a full criminal background check," Price said.
Before last week's arrest, 25 Investigates found a criminal record of a theft charge for Lampert from 2000 in Falls County.
The arrest affidavit from the Waco Police Department says she also has a previous conviction from 2012. With previous run-ins with the law, some might wonder how she was able to have access to the gifts in the first place.
So, 25 Investigates reached out to Sharon Eads, the director of Project Angel Tree.
Through her attorney, Vic Feazell, Eads declined to do an on-camera interview, but she did answer several questions, such as:
If there is a policy in place or a screening process for volunteers, how extensive is it (background checks, criminal history check)?
"We have a minimum of 400 volunteers from all walks of life. If we had to vet every one of them according to normal pricing, is a minimum of $20 - $90 each, depending on all involved (approx $8000-$36,000). A lot of them, who would never pass the vetting, are giving back because of their own past," Eads said.
Will she conduct an in-house investigation into finding out if other volunteers have done what Charabe Lampert did?
"How do I investigate approx 400 volunteers? Do I go and try to contact each one and ask them - did you steal a gift? We have no reason to suspect anyone else," Eads said.
Price said any director with a nonprofit organization should have done a better jobs at picking volunteers.
"I am inviting you to come and work for me to be a volunteer. And so the onus is on me as that operator of that nonprofit for that charity to make sure that I have done my due diligence and background check on you," Price said.
When 25 Investigates asked Eads if Project Angel Tree had volunteer policies and procedures, a screening process or code of ethics, we received no answer back from Eads or her attorney. When we asked how Lampert was able to access the gifts she was accused of stealing, neither Eads or her attorney answered that question either.
However, according to a volunteer that worked with Project Angel Tree for 12 years, Lampert has to go through Eads to get the gifts.
"It is very dangerous just to trust somebody at face value when you're talking about me trusting you to come into my organization and you're going to either be dealing with people or money. I need to make sure that I know who you are and that you're trustworthy," Price said.
Since Project Angel Tree of Central Texas is part of a program operated by a Virginia-based nonprofit, Prison Fellowship, we looked up their rules for volunteers.
In their guidelines, highlighted in bold, it says: "You will need to screen your volunteers. Vigilance in volunteer selection helps ensure safety and supports a positive ministry experience for all."
When 25 investigates asked Prison Fellowship about the criminal record of Lampert, Jim Forbes, the director of communication, replied:
“As indicated in the Angel Tree Coordinator’s guide, it is our expectation that each of their volunteers will be properly vetted by the Angel Tree Coordinator. We also continue to update policies and procedures in the overall vetting process to ensure a safe and positive work environment in the ministry,” Forbes said.
In part of a statement sent to Central Texas News Now, Ead's attorney said:
"Angel Tree is an outreach ministry and uses volunteers to accomplish their work. Some of the volunteers may have been in trouble before. Rehabilitation and second chances are part of what Angel Tree is about. Sharon considers all of the volunteers to be friends. When dealing with volunteers, sometime there are issues. Unfortunately, it appears one of the volunteers committed theft. It is now in the hands of the police. Sharon has cut ties with this volunteer. This was a onetime incident."
When we asked Price about nonprofits and volunteer protocol, he said organizations find themselves in hot water typically when there is no protocol at all.
25 Investigates did reach out to Lampert's attorney, Seth Sutton, for a statement and an opportunity for an on-camera interview. He declined both.
However, through the Facebook thread posted on July 3, the below message was posted by Lampert.
Regarding the recent arrest of volunteer Lampert, Prison Fellowship is standing by Project Angel Tree.
"We have no plans to cut ties with Sharon Eads and we look forward to continuing to serve hundreds of children in the Waco and Central Texas area," they said.