Virginia Youth Club: Scam or legitimate charity?

A Braddock Buzz investigation into the door-to-door solicitation group

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Mom, you just got scammed.

That was the reaction of one Fairfax County high schooler after hearing her mom’s interaction with the solicitor who’d knocked on the front door.

The solicitor was from the Virginia Youth Club, which recruits teenagers from low-income areas, often in Maryland, to go door-to-door in affluent neighborhoods selling candy or branded merchandise, though sometimes the teens just ask for donations or scholarship money.

“I actually gave because I felt bad that I was questioning her so much about the club, and I thought of how hard it would be to knock on people's doors asking for donations,” said the mom, who asked to be identified only as a resident of the Long Branch area of Fairfax County.

She added, “In the future I will not be donating.”

In emails to Braddock Buzz, posts on neighborhood Listservs, and complaints filed with the police, Fairfax County residents described similar encounters that left them feeling concerned and perplexed—wondering if they were scammed, wondering if young teens should be going around unsupervised in unfamiliar neighborhoods.

Most of all, they’ve wondered who’s actually benefiting—the kids themselves, or adults?

A Braddock Buzz investigation has uncovered previously unreported information about the Virginia Youth Club that could shed light on these questions—and help Fairfax residents make more informed decisions the next time the group is out soliciting in their neighborhoods.

A forged letter

When going door-to-door, the teenage recruits often carry letters, printed on Fairfax County letterhead, saying the group is registered with the state and authorized to solicit donations.

County officials believe this letter has been “altered” to look like it was issued in 2019, when in fact it expired in 2018, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

“We have exempted this organization in the past, but they are currently not registered with this office,” Carl Newcomb, a regulation and licensing official with the county, stated in an October email to police. “The letter they are showing has been altered. A real exemption letter would have a 2020 date and the expiration date of the letter in bold face in the body of the letter.”

The county official whose signature is on the letter, Henri Stein McCartney, changed jobs in February 2018 and thus couldn’t have signed a letter dated May 2019, as McCartney stated in a July email to colleagues. “They are now making their own county letters,” McCartney wrote.

Braddock Buzz spoke briefly by phone with the Virginia Youth Club’s top executive, Jule Huston, who referred questions to Public Affairs Director Nathan Jackson. Huston and Jackson are both based in New York but travel frequently to Maryland and Northern Virginia to manage their charities. 

“That’s an old letter,” Jackson said in an interview, explaining that he didn’t know who altered it or how it ended up in the hands of Virginia Youth Club recruits. “That letter should not be used.”

He followed up in an email: “I cannot address whoever was using a doctored document in Fairfax. I am praying that it is not anyone currently involved with our charity.”

Under state investigation

As their legal justification for denying a separate FOIA request from Braddock Buzz, state officials disclosed for the first time that the Virginia Youth Club is under active investigation by the Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs, which is part of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS).

Furthermore, the group is no longer registered to solicit donations in the state.

“As of this moment, it is an accurate statement that the Virginia Youth Club is not currently registered with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) pursuant to the requirements under the Virginia Solicitation of Contributions law,” said Michael Menefee, a program manager with the Charitable and Regulatory Programs office. “Based on the VDACS' response to your earlier FOIA request, there is an active investigation.”

State officials declined to provide additional details about the investigation.

Jackson said he was unaware of the probe and blamed his organization’s lapsed registration on the Covid-19 pandemic—a charge state officials reject.

“Our state registration is a little tardy because of the pandemic,” Jackson said. “There’s nobody working in government right now. But everything is legit, completely.”

Informed of Jackson’s comments, VDACS spokesperson Michael Wallace said the current average time to process a charitable solicitation registration is eight to 12 business days, adding: “The Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs continues its responsiveness to the public and to charities.”

For his part, Jackson noted this isn’t the first time his group has been investigated—and expressed confidence the state would find no wrongdoing.

“We were investigated by the FBI four years ago,” he said. “We were investigated by the state of Virginia the year after that. Every time it goes through, there's nothing. We've got books. You can look at our records.”

He strongly objected to characterizations of his organization as a “scam.”

“Some unfiled paperwork does not put us in the realm of a scam,” he said. “That is a most detestable charge and it endangers the hope for our teens. … We've made mistakes but we are not a fraud or a scam. Nobody is getting rich here and the majority of the teens love the program. We're catching up with our paperwork and will [be] corporately sound within weeks.”

Going door-to-door during a pandemic

The Virginia Youth Club’s approach has caused concern among Fairfax County residents, according to internal police emails obtained through FOIA.

Some have taken issue with solicitors continuing to knock on doors during a pandemic, when public health officials are urging people to practice social distancing.

“We’ve had teens knocking on our doors for the last four or so hours tonight,” one resident wrote in a November email to the Fairfax County Police Department. The resident said the teen who came to his door was wearing a mask improperly so that it didn’t cover his nose. “He was within three feet of me at my door, and it was plain he didn’t want to be doing this.”

The resident added: “I think them going door-to-door is a health risk during a pandemic. They’re risking their lives and ours by doing this. We have multiple people in our house that are high risk.”

A Herndon resident filed a complaint with the county in October saying she donated $5 to the group but had quickly come to regret it.

“I asked some questions as to why they were knocking on doors during a pandemic, and they said they were masked,” the Herndon resident wrote. “I asked his age and what school he went to. I was mad to hear that he was from Maryland.”

“Anyway,” the resident continued, “I let him keep the $5. I am more mad at myself for exposing myself to someone who I do not know and do not know where they come from during Covid.”

A statement on Virginia Youth Club website says the group requires its teen solicitors to wear face shields and rubber gloves and carry alcohol-based hand sanitizers. In addition, the statement says, “The vehicle that they will travel in will be thoroughly disinfected twice per day and the teens will have their temperatures taken before they are allowed into the vehicle.”

Jackson elaborated in his interview with Braddock Buzz.

“We make sure that the kids have full safety,” he said. “We go to great lengths to make sure they're covered at all times, that there is adequate supervision, they have cell phones, GPS trackers, we have people that kind of patrol in the area so that we always know where they are at all times. We've been doing this a lot of years.”

The group recruits teens ages 14 through 17 by posting fliers in low-income neighborhoods.

“The kids call and we interview them and if they're up to standards and their parents sign the parent consent form, then we train them,” Jackson said.

He added that he believes some of the scrutiny his group receives for soliciting in affluent, and mostly white, neighborhoods is due to sincere concern for the wellbeing of the teenagers—but that some was also due to racism.

“A lot of times, it's really good people who have concerns,” he said. “And sometimes it's just racist.”

On its website, the group says it “provides inner-city teenagers with part-time jobs and fund-raising opportunities in local, residential neighborhoods.” 

“We are a club for boys and girls who never joined a scouting troop,” the site continues. “Our members are good kids who, because of their cultural influences, require a different ‘flavor’ that is appealing to their ethnic palates.”

Examining the group’s finances

Revenues

The Virginia Youth Club’s 2019 federal tax filing lists its primary purpose as, “To rescue teens.”

The document says the group brought in $67,133 that year, all of which came from “sales of inventory.” No revenue was attributed to contributions or gifts even though the solicitors sometimes have nothing to sell and are simply asking for donations or scholarship money, according to the emails and police complaints reviewed by Braddock Buzz.

Asked about the inconsistency, Jackson said Virginia Youth Club recruits should never just ask for donations—they should always be selling a product. Teens who just ask for money, he said, might be impersonating his group and pocketing the cash.

“We try our best to give people a product for whatever they donate to us,” he said. “Here's the deal: There are a lot of people out there who want to do what we do, who are not us but think they are. And they have no paperwork, or bogus paperwork.”

“Some of these kids just go out on their own afterwards and say they're with a charity and they're not,” he continued. “If you can avoid overhead and all the documents that we have to file and the accountants and attorneys that we use—it's a good hustle. You're pulling on people's heartstrings to make a few bucks, and it works.”

Expenditures

On the other side of the ledger, the tax filing shows the group had $63,732 in expenses in 2019, broken down into these categories:

The “occupancy, rent, utilities, & maintenance” line item may refer to the office suite that the group lists as its physical address—11350 Random Hills Road, Suite 800, near the Fair Oaks Mall.

The group compensates its teenage solicitors and their adult supervisors, and these funds may come from the $13,850 line item titled, “professional fees & other payments to independent contractors.” 

Jackson said the teens are paid for going door-to-door at a rate of $2 per item sold, plus bonuses, with their supervisors getting $2.50. All items are priced at $10. “They always make at least minimum wage,” Jackson explained.

He also said the 11% of the group’s budget attributed to “activities & trips” goes toward enriching experiences such as trips to the movies, amusement parks, baseball games, and other activities. “We take them on lots of outings,” Jackson said. “We try to get the kids who fell through the cracks, you know? Sometimes the schools can’t do it, their parents can’t do it, and they’re not going to church. We take them to places they wouldn’t normally go.”

A section of the Virginia Youth Club website titled “Giving Back” says the group gave a $1,000 grant to a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, though it doesn’t specify when. The website also features a photo of packs of school supplies that were donated to children in need, among other photos of service activities.

The group’s tax filing shows that a quarter of its annual budget—the largest line item at $16,000—goes toward the salary of its top executive, Huston.

Huston and Jackson either lead or have ties to similar groups in a number of states, including the Maryland Youth Club, the New York Youth Club, the Long Island Youth Club, the Carolina Youth Club, and the Georgia Peach Youth Club.

Some of these groups have a history of run-ins with the law and state regulators, dating at least as far back as 2010, when Huston himself, then 26 years old, was charged with 11 counts of child endangerment. Police said they found members of the New York Youth Club as young as 12 outside in sub-freezing temperatures, unsupervised, as the Long Island Press reported at the time

Jackson said the charges against Huston were later dropped—and attributed them to racism.

“Nassau County, frankly, is a bit racist, especially the police,” he said. “They hit him with every charge in the world, put him on TV and everything else. This guy comes from a family of cops. He got real disturbed, as we all did, because they really made it ugly—they put his booking photo on TV. When he got to court, they just dropped it. They dropped every single charge and begged him not to sue.”

More recently, in October 2020, the Long Island Youth Club came under scrutiny for allegedly allowing a 13-year-old to go door-to-door selling candy unsupervised, The East Hampton Star reported. In 2018, two men were charged with endangering the welfare of children for sending 10 kids—members of the New York Youth Club ages 11 to 16—to sell candy unsupervised in unfamiliar neighborhoods, CBS New York reported. Also in 2018, South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond filed an enforcement action against the Carolina Youth Club to prevent it from soliciting donations in the state, Count on News 2 reported, because the group had failed to file its 2016 annual financial report and had been cited and fined for violating the state’s child labor laws.

“The Carolina Youth Club has demonstrated blatant disregard for the law,” Hammond said at the time. “Without the filings required under the Solicitation of Charitable Funds Act, we have no way of knowing whether the children who are ‘club members’ are benefiting from this organization’s charitable purpose, and neither does the donor.”

The Fairfax County Police Department declined to comment for this story but encouraged community members to call the department’s non-emergency number, 703-691-2131, to report any suspicious activity.