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Donors turn theft into blessing for nonprofit

Suzy Benson Gillies was distraught when she discovered a hacker stole funds the African Promise Foundation raised to pay school fees for students in Uganda.

The news came on the heels of a visit by Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, who runs a school for women and their children who have been victims of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army  in Uganda.

Benson Gillies had connected with Nyirumbe on one of her trips to the country. Because of the meeting a friendship between the two women was born.

Nyirumbe made a stop in Seattle in February and spoke at several Tahoma schools about the brutalities the Uganda students lived through and the ability Tahoma students have to make a difference in the world.

African Promise, which is run entirely by volunteers, buys beads from Ugandan women as a means for the women to support themselves. Jewelry made from the beads is sold by the organization and the profits are used to sponsor students at schools in Northern Uganda. Last year 35 students were sponsored.

The organization pays school fees for the year in February via wire transfer.

The first hint something had gone amiss came when Benson Gillies received an email from a volunteer in Uganda asking when she was going to wire the money.

Benson Gillies had already wired the money.

Then it was discovered someone had hacked into the volunteer’s email account and sent Benson Gillies bad information about where to wire the funds — effectively stealing them.

“We contacted the bank immediately,” MaryKai Boulton, treasurer and accountant for African Promise said.

The foundation also contacted the authorities in Uganda and is working on filing a report with the FBI. Boulton noted that the odds of retrieving the funds are slim.

The transfer totaled about $9,000, which was a full year of school fees for 20 students.

Benson Gillies said that she was so upset after learning the news that when she picked her son up from school his first reaction was to ask if his dad had died. She informed him that no, dad was fine, but the money for the Uganda students had been stolen.

The Board of Directors convened an emergency meeting that weekend to talk about what to do next. Benson Gillies wasn’t able to be at the meeting — the same weekend she was scheduled to depart on an international vacation to celebrate her birthday.

At that point the board had three options: inform the students they wouldn’t be able to fund the school fees this year, pay the first term with funds the foundation had in reserve and work to raise the rest — which would put them behind on fundraising for next year – or go public with what had happened and ask the community for support.

“We had to decide what to do,” Boulton said.

The board ruled out the first option — to them not supporting the students just wasn’t a legitimate option.

“We had 20 kids whose lives depended on us,” Benson Gillies said. “We didn’t really have a choice to sit back and say no. We had to move forward.”

Ultimately the board decided to go public and posted a letter to the organization’s Facebook page.

“We received a huge outpouring of support,” Boulton said.

By the following Tuesday supporters of the organization had donated $12,400 dollars, with an additional $1,000 to come in matching funds. That’s more than the original amount stolen.

With those funds, Benson Gillies said, not only will the organization be able to keep it’s obligations to students, but will also be able to sponsor an additional five students.

“That’s incredible,” Benson Gillies said. “It blows my mind. Still.”

Boulton said that things like this can raise questions about an organization, and cause people to doubt the work that is being done.

“We receive nothing for this,” Boulton said. “We do it for the women and

children.”

Suzanne Wiggins, secretary for African Promise and a member of the board, added that the outpouring of support from the community moved each of them.

“I think most of us were just devastated,” Wiggins said of the board’s reaction to the theft.

The organization will be changing the way it sends money to reduce the risk of a similar theft, including sending money directly to the organizations. It will also have four people involved and do nothing through email.

Benson Gillies said the only way to be sure a theft doesn’t happen again is for someone from the foundation to go to Uganda and deliver the funds.

To date, the fees for the first term have been successfully paid for the 20 students and Benson Gillies will personally deliver the funds for terms two and three on a previously planned trip to Uganda later this spring.

“There was sorrow and we didn’t believe that our process was vulnerable,” Boulton said about the theft. “We were being extremely safe for U.S. standards and we realized we needed a few more safeguards.”

It was the generosity of the organization’s supporters that restored hope for the organization and made it possible for students to continue to go to school and change their futures.

“We went from seeing how low people could go to raising all that money in a week,” Boulton said.

 

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