Jule Huston started last Saturday same as any other day he has been volunteering for a Smithtown-based youth group: He picked up 11 kids from their homes and dropped them off in various Nassau County neighborhoods where they sold $8 boxes of gourmet chocolates door-to-door to raise funds for group’s after-school activities. But in a not-so-sweet surprise, the 26-year-old Centereach man wound up in handcuffs facing 11 counts of child endangerment. Nassau police say the candy man can’t make the world taste good—at least not how he was going about it.
Police charged Huston, a team leader for the New York Youth Club (NYYC), because they said the kids—all between the ages of 12 and 15—were outside after sunset in subfreezing temperatures, had no direct adult supervision in unfamiliar neighborhoods and had no means of communication. Huston and NYYC leaders fired back at police Monday, saying that the teens were all in touch with their supervisor via cell phone and the group’s only intention is to keep their 200-plus members from joining gangs. But with Huston also facing a resisting arrest charge and NYYC planning to sue the police for harassment, the case has done little to help the image of this nonprofit and those like it that rely on goodwill to get by.
“We are experiencing gross harassment and racial discrimination,” says Rev. E. Edward Robinson II, one of NYYC’s lead organizers, noting that two children were sent home that day because they were not properly dressed for the weather—proof, he says, of their commitment to safety. “They do not want little minority kids out there knocking on doors.”
Police maintain that this is not a racial issue. “No one’s saying that they’re not a legitimate organization, but the lack of supervision and the neglect of the child is criminal,” says Detective Sgt. Anthony Repalone, a Nassau police spokesman. “We haven’t encountered any other organizations where we’re seeing this type of behavior.”
NYYC brings in nearly $200,000 total revenue annually, partly through candy sales, although there are also individual donors. The funds are used to bring the teens and adolescents from deprived areas to theme parks and other outings in between the group’s charitable efforts, such as organizing food drives.
Huston maintained his “main concern is the teenagers,” when called to the Fifth Precinct stationhouse after two of his teenage fundraisers were picked up by police on Hempstead Turnpike in Franklin Square at about 6 p.m. Once he was at the stationhouse and realized he was going to be arrested, Huston said he was pushed up against a wall as he tried to call his attorney. Police counter that he did not comply when told he was being arrested. Huston also alleges one of the teens was pepper-sprayed—a charge police deny.
What happened after that is even murkier. Police say Huston was uncooperative in helping track down the remaining seven kids still on the street (two teens were riding with Huston when he arrived at the stationhouse). Huston says police refused to let him use his phone to call the kids or check a map in his vehicle with their locations. The children were all found in good health by 10:30 p.m., were cooperative and returned to their parents, Repalone said.
The incident was not NYYC’s first run-in with police. On Jan. 12, another NYYC team leader—who police said was driving with a suspended license following a drunken driving arrest—was charged with child endangerment after an officer found a kid selling candy while wearing what was described as a “light jacket,” in subfreezing temperatures. Out of two supervisors arrested on child endangerment charges last February, one is still facing charges while the other pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
NYYC, which faxes names of the fundraisers to the precincts ahead of time and has them wear nametags to avoid confusion, says this pattern is proof of police harassment. “We are not criminals, we are not perverts, we are not child abusers,” Robinson says. “If these teenagers are not with us, they’re with the gangs.”
In addition, there is a labor department probe. “We’re going to take a look to see if there had been any violation of labor law,” says Karen Williamson, spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Labor. She says the group paid a $2,100 fine in 2008 after a child under the age of 14 was determined to be acting as an employee, a child over 14 was found to be acting as an employee without working papers and for improper record keeping. The group could face up to a $2,000 fine if found to be a second-time offender.
Williamson adds that cases like this are rare. The last time a nonprofit’s child-run candy sale violated labor laws was 2001 in Buffalo, she says. But the labor department generally only acts on tips and doesn’t target nonprofits for investigation.
“It doesn’t frighten us because we’re not doing anything wrong,” Robinson says. “We’re not a fly-by-night organization.”
Angel Smith, a Brentwood mother of three children in NYYC, two of them who were with Huston on the night of his arrest, said she has no second thoughts about the group. “The New York Youth Club helped get my kids off the street,” she says. “It takes them places I can’t take them.”
Smith adds that is isn’t all fun and games, but her kids are learning. “I like to see the look on their face when they accomplish something that people say that they can’t do.”
Her son, Vincent, was one of the last to be picked up after several rounds of frantic phone calls. But he says he wasn’t scared and still is enthusiastic about the organization. “I pick the days that I want to go and I get to hang out with my friends,” he says.
But the question now is if donors will be as willing to buy their candy to keep this group funded.
Knock Knock, Who’s There?
Unless it’s the Girl Scouts—arguably the most recognizable door-to-door sweets salesgirls with their popular cookies—residents are reluctant to buy from solicitors who come knocking on the door.
One local nonprofit leader says transparency helps overcome potential suspicion. “If I’m answering my doorbell, it is my responsibility to ask the person who is at the doorbell to ask show me something, mail me something,” says Patrice Frank, director of development at the nonprofit Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts and president of Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Long Island chapter.
Frank suggests donors research an organization with the Better Business Bureau on Guidestar.com before making a donation whenever possible. “These kinds of stories don’t help anybody,” she says of New York Youth Club’s predicament.
But it can be hard to compete with nearly a century worth of name recognition, as is the case with the Scouts. “It’s a commodity people are comfortable with,” says Eileen Driscoll, director of product sales for Girl Scouts of Suffolk County.
But even they can hit roadblocks. For those who may be unfamiliar with the fact that the Scouts also sell nuts in the fall, official literature helps put buyers’ minds at ease.