Caution urged for potential donors

A group called Autism Awareness United is under scrutiny by state officials.

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WALLA WALLA — Local Department of Human Services officials are urging Walla Walla residents to donate with caution.

Carla Nibler, senior coordinator for Walla Walla County’s chapter of the statewide Parent to Parent program, recently became aware of people soliciting funds for a group called Autism Awareness United, and claiming money collected in Walla Walla would be used to help local families.

The organization’s alleged mission is to spread awareness about autism, help needy families get children diagnosed and to partner with local and regional agencies serving families dealing with autism, Nibler said.

Those manning the table set outside Walmart on a recent Friday, however, seemed unaware of how donations would be used in this community and had little knowledge of autism in general, the coordinator said today.

“What really got me is they had young girls there and they knew how to say the ‘money stays local.’ When I talked to the mom at the table, she could not answer a lot of my questions.”

According to a September article in The Oregonian, Autism Awareness United is under scrutiny by the Oregon Department of Justice for breaking state laws, having questionable expenses for a charity and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations but paying out less that $9,000 to families or autism-related agencies.

The leader of AAU, Joe Searles, and his wife began fundraising for the Autism Society of Washington under an agreement that allowed Searles to keep 80 percent of what was collected, the Oregonian reported.

That agency later canceled the contract and sent information to the state alleging Searles’ group used deceptive solicitation practices, the newspaper reported.

The AAU told Oregon officials it was shutting down, but the agency appears to have continued to sell raffle tickets and use unregistered fundraisers unlawfully. In Washington, the attorney general’s office launched its own investigation earlier this year, the Oregonian reported.

Last week, Nibler said, she approached the College Place Walmart management to seek the store’s help in making sure such solicitors represent legitimate causes and agencies.

Her own research failed to find that AAU had ties to any local or state groups that help families with needs related to the disorder, she added. “For me, that is the worst way to pull someone’s heartstrings.”

On the other hand, there are a number of local agencies with local board members and a high degree of accountability that undeniably help Walla Walla Valley folks, she added.

There is Parent to Parent, which supports families impacted by all disabilities, Meadowood Speech Camp and Eastern Washington Autism Spectrum Disorder Association, Nibler noted. On behalf of any or all of those agencies, “I would have loved to have the money I saw in those buckets.”

For more information about autism or making local donations, call Parent to Parent at 524-2920.

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