'Helping Our Own' FD Support Group Creator Forced Out

Mark Warnick took out personal loans to create a foundation to help struggling fire departments.

Mark Warnick, the man who created Helping Our Own, an organization known for assisting struggling fire departments, and the original board of directors have been booted out by a group brought in to lend a hand with fundraising.

Now, according to Jerry Kaufman who today called himself a volunteer but was listed as HOO Executive Director on 2004 IRS non-profit tax documents, there are no funds left and HOO has shut down.

H.R. Wilkinson, the man behind the takeover, has an extensive history with non-profits.

"We are working on new funding sources. Perhaps, we will be open by summer," he said Tuesday, adding that he was not privy to any fundraising events that may be ongoing.

"I am the only one left. There is no day-to-day operations...The building is still there. But there is no driver, no employees, no payroll..."

Warnick was terminated a few weeks ago as chief of operations following a tumultuous relationship with Wilkinson. He said they came to his house, confiscated his computers, and he has been barred from the HOO headquarters in Michigan.

When things appeared bleakest about two years ago, he was contacted by Wilkinson, who offered to bring in his team of professional fundraisers.

Wilkinson pointed to other struggling non-profits that he'd saved. And, he told the group about another organization, National Fire Safety Council, and how it would be beneficial for them to be linked, Warnick said.

Warnick is the first to admit that HOO was struggling. He took out personal loans to see his dream realized. But, after many years of refurbishing and doling out donated boots, helmets, tools and apparatus, funds started getting a bit thin.

Now, Warnick and former board members say they made a terrible mistake. At the time, however, they did what they felt was best for HOO.

He said he regrets buying into Wilkinson's offer to help out. "You've heard the saying: 'If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.' I should have heeded that warning."

HOO board members said they discussed Wilkinson's offer extensively before finally agreeing to accept it. While they had reservations about turning the organization over, no one wanted to see it fold for financial reasons.

But, they soon learned that the offer also came with a demand - the resignation of all the board members, fire service officials from various areas of the country who had helped HOO get off the ground.

In an apparent attempt to appease them, the original board members were kept on as an advisory panel. But they said they had virtually no input in the operation.

"He insisted that he bring in his own people. People who knew the business of raising money for non-profits," said Lou Molino, a former board member. "I was the hold out. I held on the longest before I finally pulled the plug."

"We were blinded by Wilkinson's promises," Molino said, adding that they all had been cut out of the loop. Since the board members were now under the control of Wilkinson, he was able to completely control Helping Our Own.

Warnick admits he's still smarting. "I put my whole life on the line for this, and the bastards took it away."

Wilkinson, who's had a hand in numerous non-profits across the country, is currently being investigated by at least one attorney general's office. And, documents reveal other probes were conducted into his dealings.

Wilkinson's actions with HOO also mirror his takeover of the group Missing Kids....HELP Center nearly 20 years ago.

Youth Today, a national independent magazine in publication for nearly a decade, investigated Wilkinson's dealings with the HELP Center.

The missing children's group was founded by Ivana DiNova after her niece disappeared. It soon rose to gain national attention and was featured on ABC's "Good Morning America."

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