Merced County Rescue Mission board backs CEO

The Merced County Rescue Mission’s board of directors is standing behind the organization’s CEO, Bruce Metcalf, after volunteers claimed they were told to hide hundreds of turkeys and thousands of cans of donated canned goods during the organization’s annual Thanksgiving food drive.

Nearly half a dozen of the Rescue Mission’s volunteers, referred to as “disciples,” shared corroborating stories about being asked during the Thanksgiving season to empty freezers filled with turkeys before the local news media arrived to take pictures. The volunteers claim hundreds of turkeys and thousands of cans of food were hidden while Metcalf and his staff pleaded for more.

Some of those turkeys were sold to other nonprofits for $5 apiece, according to the volunteers.

The claims were outlined in a complaint filed with the California Attorney General’s Office by a former mission staff member earlier this year.

Metcalf didn’t deny the allegations during an interview with the Merced Sun-Star last week, but said he didn’t disclose the exact number of turkeys because some would be used in “food baskets” before they could be cooked for the mission’s annual Thanksgiving dinner.

One board member announced this week he will resign from the board of directors after six months of service. “In the context of being a former board member, I support the ideals of the organization to help those less fortunate,” said Mark Hendrickson, who’s also the Merced County director of community and economic development. “I hope they find success in the future and grow from this experience.”

Remaining board members met Tuesday night, board Chairwoman Nancy Brawley said. While there’s no intention of asking Metcalf to resign, Brawley said, the organization plans to handle things differently next Thanksgiving, especially when it comes to broadcasting the number of donated turkeys.

“You can be rest assured it will be part of the story this coming year because he (Metcalf) wants to be transparent about information that goes out,” Brawley said. “I’m sure that next year it will be laid out more plainly than some people feel that it was.”

Brawley said she wasn’t aware disciples were being asked to remove food, but stressed that Metcalf’s intentions were good. She pointed out the mission serves more than 100,000 meals a year and all donated food was used for the needy.

“Whatever was done was not done with the intent to deceive the public, it was done to maximize the usage, and any turkeys on hand would go out in food baskets,” Brawley said. “It doesn’t bother me because he’s doing it for the welfare of the people who will benefit.”

Brawley said the organization has also sent a letter to its major donors in response to the Sun-Star article about the hiding of food while pleading for more.

“If it appears to you that we have been deceptive in our advertising drive to receive turkeys, we sincerely apologize,” the letter stated, according to Brawley. “Please be assured that no one is personally profiting from our turkey drive.”

Board member Dennis Slocum said removing turkeys from freezers to make it appear there were no donations was not something he would have done.

“Looking in retrospect, I don’t think that was the best way to handle it,” Slocum said. “I think we’re doing the right thing, but I think the message went out incorrectly. I don’t know why that happened, and I don’t think it will happen again.”

Slocum has been on the board of directors since February, but has been a volunteer at the mission for about 10 years. “We are trying to do the job the best we can and that’s to feed the hungry.

“It’s not a decision I would have made, but the intent was to get enough turkeys for the year. The intent was right,” he added. “I think some lessons have been learned and I think we’ll proceed in a different manner.”

Other local nonprofits said public perception is crucial when asking for donations and said any doubts could hamper people’s decision to give.

“There are always people who are looking for a reason not to give, and this will definitely satisfy their conscience,” said Major Joe Hoogstad, commander of the Salvation Army in Merced. “Public perception is critical and that’s why we make every effort not to do anything that would ever be suspicious or reflect poorly on the Salvation Army.”

United Way Executive Director Carol Bowman said she doesn’t believe the issue at the Rescue Mission will affect donations to her organization. “I think United Way has a good reputation in the community,” Bowman said, “and I don’t think people would associate something that happened at the Rescue Mission to United Way.”