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Maui charity called ‘questionable’

  • COURTESY PHOTO
    Stay Strong Nation charity group organizers are L.A. Keith Crosby, left, president; Gresford Lewishall, vice president; Melissa Cramblett, charity ambassador; Michael Lietz, creative director; and Charles Cook, charity ambassador.
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A Maui charity raising money across the nation to build a 42-acre, $20 million post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury treatment center says it has little to show for the effort despite soliciting donations for the last several years.

Stay Strong Nation has ramped up its awareness and money-raising campaign, appearing in Times Square in September and on a Fox News national broadcast last month. It plans fundraising events at Kualoa Ranch in April and on the mainland during stops in Miami; Nashville, Tenn.; Lake Tahoe; New Jersey; and Iowa.

The two Maui men behind Stay Strong Nation say they are just "regular guys" out to improve the lives of U.S. service members who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, two widespread wartime afflictions.

A respected charity watchdog, however, said the nonprofit is "highly questionable" because of those two regular guys and their unorthodox approach to pursuing the multimillion-dollar Maui treatment center.

L.A. Keith Crosby, Stay Strong’s president, said he is a maintenance worker at Hale Mahina Beach Resort. He’s also a musician, music producer, a Vietnam combat vet who served in the "Iron Triangle" in 1969 who has PTSD, and a former retail shop manager, he said.

The tax-exempt charity’s vice president, Gresford "Lewis" Lewishall, said he teaches English in Japan in between appearances on behalf of Stay Strong, including a New Year’s Day interview on Fox News. He moved to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1978, is a music promoter and also drove a tour bus on Maui, according to the group’s website.

The two have also collaborated in Booyou Back Productions to produce CDs; Gateway to Paradise, a music-related business; and two other nonprofits: the Nene Preservation & Awareness Society of Hawaii, and National Domestic Violence Awareness and Solutions Inc.

Additionally, Stay Strong Nation touts a controversial and unproven dietary supplement, ProArgi-9 Plus — for which Lewishall said he will be a distributor — as a treatment for PTSD and TBI.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog group in Chicago, said the people behind Stay Strong Nation do not appear to have professional expertise in PTSD or in creating a $20 million treatment center for it.

"You want to look for a track record, and they are not showing that they have a track record of doing this kind of thing," Borochoff said. "I mean, it’s likely to fail and waste a lot of money based on what I’m seeing on their website."

Borochoff called the organization "highly questionable."

"If I was asked by a donor, based on this website and based on their lack of filings, whether or not to support this group, I’d say no, it’s a really big risk," Borochoff said.

Crosby said he doesn’t profess to be an expert on PTSD and TBI. Lewishall has no formal background in those fields, either, Crosby added.

"What we’re doing is raising awareness, and then we’ll get qualified people to run (the treatment center)," Crosby said.

Despite that, Lewishall was asked on the Fox News segment to define PTSD and talk about how it affects troops.

The state Attorney General’s office said Stay Strong Nation isn’t registered with the office as a charity, but added that nonprofit organizations that take in less than $25,000 a year are not required to do so.

Hugh R. Jones, supervising deputy attorney general, said regardless of income, any charity can register. The state then posts the registration and any Internal Revenue Service tax filings online for the public to see.

"I would recommend that donors exercise extreme caution before making a contribution to an unregistered charity because there is a dearth of information on how the contributions will be used," Jones said.

He said for charities in the 2010 tax year that received less than $50,000 in revenue, only the equivalent of a postcard, a form 990N, is required to be filed with the IRS, and it doesn’t ask for any financial information.

The IRS, meanwhile, audits less than one-half of 1 percent of all tax-exempt organizations annually, Jones said.

CROSBY, 60, SAID the Stay Strong Nation is "aboveboard on everything."

He and Lewishall thought they were registered as a charity with the state Attorney General’s office, but the number they provided turned out to be their state ID tax number. The IRS does list Stay Strong Nation as a charitable organization.

Crosby said Stay Strong hasn’t been doing well on fundraising up to this point. His office is in his home.

"So far, (the money raised) has been minuscule, because we’ve done everything out of pocket," he said by phone from Maui. "Basically, the past three years have been from friends and just ourselves out of pocket. We’ve probably spent, I’d say, in excess of $250,000 ourselves."

He repeatedly declined to say how much the group has raised since it started the website StayStrongNation.org in 2008 and began soliciting donations, which at the time was for a CD with a "Stay Strong" song co-written by Crosby and for a then-$15 million PTSD treatment center goal.

"We’re doing a lot of TV interviews, a lot of radio interviews, (but the contributions have been) minuscule because we’re not really asking anything from the public other than, say, $5 or $10 donations," Crosby said. "We’ve got those but nothing major."

They hired a Florida public relations firm, started the national awareness and fundraising campaign in September and said they are close to a deal with Toyota.

Their website provides three ways to give money.

Stay Strong partnered with Xipwire so donors can text in a contribution. People can also donate online, and a post office box address in Kahului is there to receive checks.

"We’re taking donations from every source that we can get," Crosby said.

Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy said grass-roots fundraising isn’t a typical approach for a $20 million treatment center.

"Usually, this is all planned behind the scenes before it gets announced," he said. "They come forward with some big backers, and then what happens is that the smaller backers fall in line with the bigger backers."

The nonprofit organization and the PTSD and TBI treatment center plan grew out of the "Stay Strong" song, which pays homage to the sacrifices of U.S. troops and vows they will be remembered.

"Lewis said, ‘You can’t sit on this, we’ve got to do something with it and actually help people,’" Crosby said.

The 42 acres the pair have their eyes on for a treatment center is owned by Allan J. Mendes in Wailuku.

"This will be a campuslike setting," Crosby said. "It’s not going to be a hospitallike setting or anything. It’s going to be basically a resort or campuslike setting where these young men and women can detox. We’ll have animals that will help them, we’ll have service animals that are well trained, Labradors and golden retrievers that can help them heal themselves."

Mendes, who runs the 3,000-acre Mendes Ranch, said the land is for sale. The 42-acre parcel was appraised for $3.4 million, he said.

"It’s a very unique piece of property down by the ocean on the cliffs, and it has a big valley that you drive down," he said. "It’s a very unique place, very peaceful."

He said Lewishall came and looked at the land.

"He told me they are working hard at it," Mendes said. "I don’t know how all this works."

Another pursuit of the Stay Strong Nation is the use of a dietary supplement with the brand name ProArgi-9 Plus as a treatment for PTSD and TBI.

The supplement contains L-arginine, which causes vasodilation, or blood vessel relaxation. According to the Mayo Clinic, early evidence suggests L-arginine, an amino acid, might help treat conditions that improve with vasodilation, including clogged arteries, coronary artery disease, erectile dysfunction and heart failure.

The clinic said more study is needed for many of L-arginine’s purported benefits.

Previously in 2003, the maker of the HeartBar, a food bar that contained L-arginine, was charged by the Federal Trade Commission with making deceptive claims for saying the product reduced the risk of heart disease and reversed heart damage and effects of high cholesterol.

The proposed settlement prohibited the maker from making the "unsubstantiated" claims with HeartBar or any other L-arginine product, according to the FTC.

Crosby said he takes ProArgi-9 Plus for his PTSD. He said it calms him and helps him sleep.

Another member of the Stay Strong team, Melissa Cramblett, said the supplement helped her with PTSD after she was wounded in Iraq as a soldier in 2004.

Cramblett, who lives in Oregon, appears in a video on argi9health.com, which sells the product, with Lewishall and Dr. Joseph Prendergast, described as the ProArgi-9 "formulator."

Lewishall confirmed he will be a distributor of ProArgi-9 Plus.

Stay Strong refers to treating PTSD and TBI with the supplement on its website, saying, "Our studies have shown the L-arginine in ProArgi-9 plus reduce levels of stress, anxiety, feelings of loneliness and depression." No details are provided about those studies.

Dr. Carroll Diebold, chief of the psychiatry department at Tripler Army Medical Center, said the supplement is not used in the Army health care system.

Crosby said Stay Strong wants to gather 75 to 100 service members with "worst-case scenarios" of PTSD and TBI "and do our own independent tests (with ProArgi-9 Plus), which Dr. Prendergast will oversee, and when the results come in, they can’t say that it’s voodoo science."

BOROCHOFF, the president of the charity watchdog American Institute of Philanthropy, said veterans’ causes is an area where there is a lot of charitable money flowing.

He’s heard that as much as $2 billion a year is given. "It’s lucrative," he said.

With tighter economic conditions, however, donors should make sure their money goes to "credible nonprofits with track records that are actually helping veterans," Borochoff said.

Lewishall said the first part of the Stay Strong campaign has been aimed at building awareness and credibility.

He said that even though there haven’t been many donations, he and the others with Stay Strong will keep going.

"We haven’t given up hope, because these guys and gals are fighting for us, and they haven’t given up hope," Lewishall said. "We’ve just got to keep trying, and it will come through."

 

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