Thrift store owner brushes critics aside

'I know in my heart what I do,' she says

gmartin@islandpacket.comMarch 23, 2012 

Karen Matthews, the owner of Off Island Thrift and the director of the Cancer Awareness Foundation, speaks with gift recipients at a lunch held to distribute money to help cancer patients with their monthly expenses. The event took place Friday at the Off Island Thrift Store at Plantation Business Park.

JAY KARR/ THE ISLAND PACKET

Large signs greet shoppers at each of Off Island Thrift Store's three Bluffton locations.

They bear the amount given, in each of the past three years, by the store's affiliated charity to cancer patients and others in need -- more than $1.6 million in all.

"My passion is to help people while they're in treatment," said store owner Karen Matthews. "This is the reason I'm on this earth."Matthews said some competitors are jealous of Off Island Thrift's success -- a third store that opened in December gave her a total of 45,000 square feet of space -- and she acknowledges her detractors, including anonymous commenters on a local publication's website.

She suspects one commenter is a disgruntled former employee she fired for stealing and dismisses the criticism as unfounded.

A few recipients of the store's charity, though, were surprised to learn how much value was assigned to the goods they received -- a factor that has a bearing on the amounts reported as gifts to the needy.

And tax reports filed by the store's nonprofit arm contained several errors, but Matthews and her accountant said those were only clerical oversights.

OTHER THRIFTS BIGGEST BENEFACTORS

Off Island Thrift's affiliated charity, the Cancer Awareness Foundation, is "dedicated to the lives of local cancer patients," according to the foundation's website.

Banners behind the registers say the foundation donated $483,528 in 2009, $584,842 in 2010, and $556,581 in 2011.

The sums reflect a combination of cash donations and surplus goods given away by the foundation. Cash goes to cancer patients who have asked the organization for help; the goods, which account for most of Cancer Awareness's donations, are given mostly to shelters and other thrift stores, who come to the stores and haul it away themselves.

For purposes of bookkeeping and tallying the figures on the signs, the value of those goods is determined by Matthews and her staff. They follow conventional thrift-store practice, assigning fair-market value, Matthews said -- clothes are valued at 50 cents per item or $30 per bag; other goods are appraised at their marked price while on the floor.

The foundation's 2011 tax statement hasn't yet been filed, but according to Matthews, it donated about $305,000 worth of goods to charities that year -- $294,210 of which went toward supporting two other charitable thrift store operations, in Savannah and Orlando. Slightly more than $250,000 in cash was donated to local cancer patients, according to Matthews.

The Old Savannah City Mission alone -- which operates three thrift stores and a "clothes closet" for the city's indigent -- received $235,899 of goods in 2011 from Off Island Thrift. Orlando-based Westgate Foundation, another thrift-store organization, received $58,311 in goods in 2011.

The Savannah charity has long been the principal benefactor of Off Island Thrift's goods. According to the foundation's 2009 and 2010 tax filings, it's the only charity that has received more than $5,000 worth of those goods either year.

Connell Stiles, its director of development and retail sales, says she's thankful for the donations.

And Jackie McCann of Westgate Foundation said she appreciates Off Island Thrift's donations and looks forward to extending their relationship.

Other recipients say they have been less pleased.

'A LOT OF ALREADY PROCESSED STUFF'

Heart to Home thrift shop in Ridgeland opened this past April and benefits developmentally disabled adults. Lee Bowen, who has been involved in the store's operation since its opening, said Matthews invited him to Off Island Thrift to pick up items to help stock his shop.

He made a few trips but hasn't returned since May because the only items made available to him were in a storage shed behind the store on Bluffton Parkway and were mostly undesirable, he said."It was a lot of already processed stuff that no one would be interested in," he said. "It wasn't the nice stuff she keeps inside the store."

Bowen said he picked up "some clothes, some toys, and a few pieces of furniture." According to records provided by Off Island Thrift, the value of the goods Bowen picked up was $3,090.

"That seems pretty high," he said.

Does he think the value was close to $3,000?

"No," he said flatly.

Three Black Dogs, a pet boarding house in Bluffton, is listed as another recipient of Off Island Thrift's goods in 2011. But its owner, Holly Zusack, said the donation consisted of a single "old, faded print"that Zusack estimated was worth $5.

Off Island Thrift had valued the print at $49.99, its records show. (The print didn't sell at a charity auction, Zusack said.)

The director of another charity listed as a recipient of Off-Island Thrift goods said the contribution was minimal.

"(Matthews) offered us the chance to pick through children's' Halloween costumes," said Elliott Brown of Bluffton-based Family Promise. "But she said we were only able to do that at the end of the day, and a lot of it had been picked through by then."

Brown said she collected "maybe three" costumes that day, estimating their collective worth at $5 because of their condition. Off Island listed $247.47 in donations to Family Promise in 2011. Brown said the costumes were the only things Family Promise received from Off Island Thrift since she began work in February 2011.

PAPERWORK ISSUES

Off Island Thrift was established as a for-profit business that gives all of its profit to the Cancer Awareness Foundation, a non-profit. As a for-profit business, the store is not required to make its tax returns public, though Matthews offered to let The Island Packet view many of the business's other records.

Cancer Awareness's annual tax returns are public record, however, and its most recent filing -- for the 2010 fiscal year -- contains several mistakes.

Brian Sutton, the accountant and Cancer Awareness board member who prepared the returns, acknowledged the errors and said he will file an amended return when the current tax season ends.

Sutton said many of the errors were imparted when the TurboTax software used to prepare the returns imported data from the previous year's form. Thus, a $6,500 cash donation and the value of the foundation's donated goods are both erroneously repeated from the 2009 filing. And the foundation's revenue and expenses are off by about $200,000 each, Sutton said -- they are reported as $796,617 and $734,982, respectively, but should be about $580,000 and $518,000.

Sutton intends to address those and other discrepancies in the amended return."The return got filed without being reviewed properly," Sutton said. "I just want to amend the return and move forward."

GIVING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD

Matthews, 51, says she is a former Miss Florida runner-up who started dabbling in real estate at age 15. She has worked in a variety of businesses -- cosmetics, selling time shares and helping launch Gold's Gyms -- but says she found her calling in the charity she started after losing her father to cancer.

Matthews says she's a hands-on owner who works 60-hour weeks, cleans and sorts donated items like any other employee, and hasn't raised her $50,000 salary since starting the venture about a decade ago.

An office manager now handles most of the contact with the cancer patients -- Matthews says the emotional strain is too heavy to do it herself -- and there are lots of patients judging by the 3-inch-thick binder that tracks donations made so far this year.

Matthews became emotional while addressing cancer patients gathered for a luncheon at one of her stores Friday, when they picked up their monthly checks.

"I love each and every one of you," she told them.

"I know in my heart what I do," she said, referring to her critics. "No weapon formed against me shall prosper."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

Related content:

Cancer Awareness Foundation

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