Volunteers at the Agape Help House food pantry and resale shop walked out Monday, Jan. 29, after learning a person they considered vital to the operation could no longer work there.
Volunteers learned at noon on Monday that the board of directors had stated effective immediately Carrie Guffey could no longer work at the service organization since her mother Jeannie Guffey was the administrator.
As Carrie Guffey vacated the building, approximately 15 food pantry and resale shop volunteers also left the premises in protest.
The resale shop did not open on Tuesday because no volunteers came to work. Jeannie Guffey and a board member operated the food pantry, but the resale shop was closed. The shop is always closed Wednesdays.
At 9 a.m. Thursday, a dozen shoppers huddled against the cold as they read the sign on the resale shop door saying it was closed. The food pantry is always closed Thursdays.
Inside, Craig Schmidt, interim Agape House president, and board member Ben King met with Jeanne Guffey to develop a plan to attract volunteers and reopen the resale shop, which provides much of the revenue to supplement food donations, pay employees and operate the building.
The paid dock worker and food pantry worker arrived at work Thursday, but were sent home because there was no one to help them carry in goods and stock shelves.
Agape Help House is a 501(c)(3) that operates the community food pantry and a resale shop at 120 Lamar Parkway and runs both entities with four paid employees and a crew of 40 to 50 volunteers. A 12-member board of directors oversees operation of the organization.
The organization was plagued by scandal two years ago when more than $55,000 was embezzled.
Following an audit to learn the extent of the embezzlement, the Agape House board hired Jeanne Guffey, administrator of the Tri-County Senior Center, which also operates largely with volunteers, as part-time executive director.
On Jan. 1, 2017, Guffey hired her daughter Carrie Guffey as office assistant. At that time, Guffey also hired one employee to run the pantry and one to work the dock.
Later that month, on Jan. 23, the board of directors added an anti-nepotism clause to the Agape House employee manual. The first check that had been written to pay Carrie Guffey was voided and a special pay arrangement was created to keep her on the job, according to Jeanne Guffey.
A Feb. 27, 2017, email from Lindell Nickelson, then Agape House president, to treasurer Joanne Wilken, board member Dave Hoven and Jeanne Guffey outlined the pay plan.
The email stated that Jeanne Guffey would receive annual pay of $36,400 for 18 hours a week as executive director, which would include $18,200 to be passed on to Carrie Guffey for 35 hours each week as office assistant.
Nickelson, Wilken and Hoven did not respond to The Missourian’s request to comment on the pay arrangement.
Volunteers who spoke to The Missourian said firing the younger Guffey, after she worked there for a year with board approval and helped the organization recover from the embezzlement scandal, is not justified.
They said the mother-daughter team completely revamped the operation of the food pantry and resale shop and that it was Carrie Guffey, with ties to a network of human service organizations, who found ways to help the poor, elderly and veterans who came to Agape House for assistance.
“She (Carrie) was a good cheerleader for food drives,” said Laura Bold, a veteran volunteer. “She was a whirlwind with the volunteers.”
Bold said the Agape board put the nepotism rule into place after Carrie Guffey was hired, but worked out a plan for her to stay.
“I understand nepotism rules, but the board had those in place all the time Carrie was here,” she said. “The board hired her last year and she has done more for the Agape House than any of the board members.
“If the board made a rule that every board member had to work five hours a month as a volunteer they would see how Jeannie and Carrie Guffey organized methods that made it all work,” she said.
Bold said the practices initiated by Guffey and the family atmosphere of the volunteers ended the stigma the service organization suffered following the revelation that funds had been embezzled, and at the same time created policies that would make another theft impossible.
“The volunteers are behind Jeannie and Carrie (Guffey). We’re all proud of how they turned things around,” she said. “Why would they let her stay for a year and use her skills to clean this place up and then fire her?”
Volunteer Margaret Basham echoed Bold’s sentiments.
“There was no reason for them to walk in here and say Carrie had to leave,” Basham said. “There was no reason for that.
“If Carrie and Jeanne leave the rest of us are done,” Basham added. “They’ve done way too much for the community. Firing her was completely unfair. It was pointless.”
Craig Schmidt, interim board president, said the board voted at its January 2018 meeting to enact the new anti-nepotism enforcement policy, which was already on the books.
Schmidt said he could not discuss the issue of Carrie Guffey’s status and the impact the new enforcement policy had on her specifically because it’s considered a personnel matter.
He also said the anti-nepotism enforcement is part of a larger set of policies that the board has put in place to safeguard operations.
When the board held a special evening meeting Jan. 30, 2018, about a dozen volunteers showed up to plea for Guffey to remain, but only two were allowed to address the board.
Following the meeting, the board reaffirmed its position that Carrie Guffey could not return.
After that meeting, volunteers said they did not want to work for a board that is so careless about the wishes of the volunteer workers.
“Who would want to volunteer to work for people like this,” Bold said. “Even the board members of a church have some responsibility to the people in the congregation. They (board members) are here like the volunteers to serve the public.
“People should do things for the right reasons, even board members,” she said.
Jeannie Guffey said she’s not sure how the service organization can move forward without volunteers.
“They (the volunteers) say they are not coming back,” she said. “The challenge now is how to attract new volunteers. One employee each can’t operate the food pantry and resale shop.”
Agape House board of directors are Dawn Dean, Tracy Payne, Sarah Brundick, Joanne Wilkes, Ketina Armstrong, Angie Hardcastle, David Hoven, Ben King, Jennifer Lawler, Craig Schmidt, Dennis Oliver and Lindell Nickelson.
Schmidt sent the following public statement concerning the situation.
“The Agape Help House of Pacific has 12 directors on its board. A quorum of six is required to approve any directives of the board. Individual members of the board of directors cannot approve any policy on their own.
“We are unable to comment on the specifics of any individual personnel issue. The problems currently being experienced by the Agape House are a classic example of why an anti-nepotism policy is needed.
“The board of directors at the Agape Help House of Pacific remains committed to assisting individuals and/or families who are having difficulty meeting their basic needs or who are in emergency situations. The board is currently striving to continue to provide services during this difficult time.”