Questions raised about local charity for sick children

Local family raises questions about charity

COOLEEMEE, NC (WBTV) - A local family is questioning a charity that says its mission is to help sick children.

Jackie Sells and Dayna Hurd called On Your Side Investigates in early June with concerns about a Kannapolis-based charity called Celebrity Charity Wishes.

The couple met the charity's organizers in December 2013 when their son, Austin, was in the hospital following a brain surgery.

Austin Sells is legally blind, deaf and has Cerebral Palsy and Hydrocephalus.

Celebrity Charity Wishes met Austin and his family when singer Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child visited the Ronald McDonald House in Charlotte.

Until late last week, pictures of Williams and Austin caught in a candid moment with big smiles on their faces were plastered on the Celebrity Charity Wishes website and Facebook page.

After meeting Austin in December 2013, the charity's organizers offered Austin's family the chance to have a wish gr anted by the organization.

In April 2014, Jackie Sells told the charity her son would like one of three things: a trip to Disney World, a handicap accessible playground installed in the back yard or a trip to Great Wolf Lodge. Charity organizers said they would give Austin and his family a trip to Disney.

But a year later, Austin's wish had still not been gr anted and a third brain surgery left him unable to get around an amusement park. Jackie Sells texted charity organizers about Austin's condition and asked if it would be possible to change his wish to the customized play set.

A text message from one of the charity's founders to Jackie Sells in late April of this year said organizers hoped to gr ant Austin's new wish of a playground by "early summer."

A few months later, on June 10, the same woman texted Jackie Sells to ask for more time.

"Bare with us it's taking a little longer since we had to change the wish," the organizer wrote. "Austin will have his wish gr anted!!!"

Jackie Sells did not hear back from the charity again until she contacted them in late July to say the family was concerned by the delays in gr anting either of Austin's wishes and no longer wanted to be associated with the charity.

Sells also told the charity she had contacted On Your Side Investigates with her concerns.

Celebrity Charity Wishes responded on July 29 by offering to deliver Austin's playground in late August or early September. The family declined the playground and re-iterated their desire to no longer associate with the charity.

"When you tell a child with disabilities that believes they're going to do something, this is heart breaking to sit there and say 'they lied to me' that breaks a mother's heart," Sells said.

Pictures of Austin and promotional information asking for donations stayed up on the website for months after the family cut ties with Celebrity Charity Wishes.

"I don't want raising money on behalf of my children and my children not getting anything out of it," Sells said in an interview in mid June.

The charity scrubbed its Facebook page of any mention of Austin and replaced the fundraising literature on its website the first week of October, weeks after On Your Side Investigates began asking questions of the charity and just days before our story was set to air.

The unfulfilled wishes has led Sells to question what the charity does with the thousands of dollars it raises each year in the name of helping sick children.

Celebrity Charity Wishes' Facebook page is full of picture from fundraising events, including a celebrity boxing tournament with Roy Jones Jr.

Other celebrities pose for pictures with the charity's founders. Nick Cannon is billed as the organization's celebrity spokesman.

But it's unclear where the money raised by the charity to help sick children goes.

Celebrity Charity Wishes' tax return for 2013—the most recent year for which a return is publicly available—says the organization took in $19,017 and spent the majority of that money on helping children.

But there is just one, non-descript line item for $13,600 in the itemized list of expenses labeled "Activities for the kids and families" that indicates how the money was spent.

An attorney for the charity would not elaborate how the organization's money is spent to benefit children and families.

Attorney Ken Harris did defend the charity and the help it provided Austin Sells and his family, though.

Harris pointed to an overnight trip to a local winery for Jackie Sells and Dayna Hurd in May 2014 and a utility bill that the charity paid in August 2014.

"I would assume that there would be some gratitude for this effort and I am somewhat surprised that there is an effort to discredit the charity following these efforts," Harris wrote in an email to On Your Side Investigates following multiple requests for comment.

Harris said the trip to Disney was scheduled to happen at an unspecified date until it was canceled by Austin's family. He did not address Austin's medical condition that the family cited as the reason for having to cancel the trip.

In a subsequent email sent this past Saturday, October 3, Harris said the trip for Austin's parents to a local winery and the payment of a utility bill counted as two of the child's wishes.

"The charity wishes Austin the very best and is now focuses on its continued work and upcoming endeavors with Charlotte medical and charitable organization to the benefit of terminally ill children," Harris said.

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