Winters Community Dinner volunteers step away amid spending concerns

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Three volunteers helping to run the annual Winters Community Dinner (WCD) have stepped away from hosting the annual Thanksgiving event after questions arose regarding its spending. The resignations follow the departure of its founder, Marie Rojo-Heilman, in January.

Rojo-Heilman started the Winters Community Dinner 21 years ago to meet the needs of the elderly and disabled who are unable to leave their homes or do not have a family to eat with, and for families in crisis that need a little extra support and care.

Volunteers Lisa Gonsalves and Gwen Pisani stepped away from volunteering for the WCD efforts in January, after consulting with an attorney about the entity not being a registered nonprofit and sharing concerns of how some of WCD’s funds have been spent.

Gonsalves and Pisani spoke to the Express about those concerns, namely, that funds raised for the annual Thanksgiving dinner were spent on purchases unrelated to the event.

Emily Back, another volunteer, declined to comment on the situation but wrote the Express in March to announce her resignation from WCD “due to misappropriation of funds by another member.”

Cracks in the non-nonprofit surfaced in the fall of 2021 as committee volunteers prepared to raise funds, solicit donations, mail letters and coordinate Thanksgiving dinners. According to Rojo-Heilman, City Manager Kathleen Salguero Trepa reached out to the WCD regarding its questionable nonprofit status after reading about the dinner in the Express, which erroneousy reported it to be a 501(c)(3).

In November 2020, Trepa said she donated $670 of her winnings from a Martinez Rotary Club lottery ticket to the WCD after seeing an article seeking donations in the Express. Trepa requested a tax receipt for the donation and received from Rojo-Heilman an event flyer with a taxpayer identification number. Only later did she learn that the WCD is not a nonprofit.

The matter didn’t come up again until October 2021, when advertisements started appearing around town for the dinner and seeking donations with the tax identification number still listed. And, the flyer mentioned that the dinner would be utilizing the community center, yet permission to use it had not been requested or granted from the City. Trepa reached out to Rojo-Heilman about the status of the non-nonprofit.

Amid organizing efforts for the 2021 dinner, Pisani said Rojo-Heilman revealed to the other volunteers that the organization had, in fact, never been incorporated or authorized to operate as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity as donors, volunteers and others may have believed. Mandatory nonprofit financial records, statements of officers and annual reports were never created, filed or reported to the state.

Pisani said the core volunteer organizers were then assigned board roles by Rojo-Heilman, and in efforts to take on the upcoming board roles they compiled numerous financial records from First Northern Bank to begin putting things in order for the nonprofit status application process.

Prior to Thanksgiving, Gonsalves asked Rojo-Heilman for financial records and receipts and was told in late December that she didn’t have any. According to Gonsalves, in December Pisani and others examined the checks and banking records and began to have concern over spending activity on the account. Pisani said she identified, at minimum, four checks where her name had been forged as a double signee.

Gonsalves said committee members met with Rojo-Heilman in January, “called her on the carpet” and “asked her to step away.” Rojo-Heilman told the group she was resigning and would have her name removed from the bank account the next day. Rojo-Heilman told the Express she was already planning a board departure, citing health reasons.

Volunteers Pisani, Gonsalves and Back reviewed checks going back to 2016. One concerning example they cite is a 2021 purchase from Sam’s Club in Folsom on Nov. 26 – the day after Thanksgiving – in the amount of $1,434.49. Rojo-Heilman said the funds were used for Christmas baskets.

“I work with several other programs and fed some of the funding to those programs,” Rojo-Heilman told the Express. “The funding that comes in isn’t just for Thanksgiving.”

For years, Rojo-Heilman has been among Winters most highly-involved volunteers, a backbone for volunteer efforts such as Youth Day, Meals on Wheels and Bread Ministry.

Asked if she diverted any WCD funds for her personal use, Rojo-Heilman responded, “Not for my personal use. It went back to the community. I continue to serve people and I serve the ones in greatest need,” adding, “I like to serve with my whole heart.”

“I did not misappropriate funds and I have no further comment,” said Rojo-Heilman.

Gonsalves says the resignations so far are an effort to hold the group accountable for questionable use of community funds. Efforts are underway to incorporate a new nonprofit organization that will provide similar services throughout the year, and to transfer previous funding over to the new organization once it has been established.

“We’re standing up to it,” Gonsalves said. “We will go forward.”

“We want to provide support for the community year-round,” Pisani said. “It’s a work in progress.”

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