'Helping Our Own' FD Support Group Creator Forced Out

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."

But, other agencies were getting more federal money, and DiNova was looking for funds to keep the center afloat, according to John Kelly, who investigated the matter for Youth Today.

Wilkinson persuaded the HELP Center's board of directors to resign and replaced them with his own board of directors, Kelly reported.

However, after widespread allegations surfaced that Wilkinson was going outside the law in fundraising efforts, and using some of the money he raised for himself, he turned the group back over to DiNova - but with debts amounting to $288,974, according to Kelly's report.

DiNova and her group were left bankrupt.

Over the past 10 years, the "Detroit Free Press" also conducted a series of investigations looking into Wilkinson's dealings with nonprofit groups.

A 1994 report found that Wilkinson's group, the National Association of Missing Children Organizations, claimed to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to help children, but none of the nation's federally recognized missing children's groups ever reported receiving any money.

The paper also reported that Wilkinson used money raised in the name of various charities for personal profit, with family members receiving "$370,000 annually in salaries and benefits."

Warnick said he is fortunate to have landed on his feet following his "deplorable" treatment by the new HOO crew.

Longtime colleague Kim Holman, owner of Dalmatian Fire Equipment in Utah, extended a hand. He helped relocate Warnick and his wife, and assisted with various issues.

Warnick is now working full time at Dalmatian Fire, and will have a hand in sales and products.

Over the years, Firehouse.com has reported on Warnick's efforts to help needy departments obtain equipment from the excess of others. Firehouse Expo, the annual conference held in Baltimore has given HOO show-floor space for collecting donated gear from attending firefighters.

Since there is still equipment in the Helping Our Own pipeline, waiting to move from donors to needy departments, the operation still hangs in limbo. The question of how much and where this equipment is, remains unanswered. The last IRS tax filing by the group for the year 2004 said they ended the year with $7,434,378 in assets, almost entirely non-cash.

Kaufman, said he hopes departments that donated equipment and those in need will have patience while they attempt to get funding.

On Sunday, Warnick disabled the domaine name which he still owns.

And, the HOO site was eliminated entirely Tuesday afternoon by the website's host server, WCES Inc. owned by Monty Gearhart, after he learned about Warnick's situation, and the new group behind the foundation.

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