Caregivers exploited at Helping House, ex-staffers claim; Avendano denies allegation

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  • Former staff members of the Multicultural Helping House Society (MHHS or Helping House) have alleged that caregivers seeking services from the Vancouver nonprofit have been exploited.

    Meantime, the MHHS will hold its annual general meeting on August 23 amid controversies swirling in the organization.

    The meeting is for members only, but a turnout of people wanting to know what’s happening is expected outside the MHHS office on Fraser Street.

    One of them is Amado Mercado, a former vice president. “We need to find solutions,” Mercado told ReyFort Media Group.

    Mercado is also encouraging other members of the Filipino community to come and learn about the situation of MHHS.

    “The community has a right to know and be heard,” Mercado said.

    There had been changes to membership rules, and these have excluded pioneers such as Mercado from the membership roll.

    “Several members of the community have contributed their time and money to create and sustain MHHS, and so Helping House truly belongs to the entire community,” Mercado said.

    The annual general meeting starts at 1 p.m.

    MHHS provides a number of services to newcomers, many of whom are Filipino caregivers.

    In a press conference on August 18, the ex-MHHS staffers said caregivers were sold expensive insurance policies, which they felt compelled to buy.

    A media release stated that the insurance policy premiums start at around $200 per month.

    The premiums were allegedly sold using a multi-level marketing business model at the MHHS by its President Tomas ‘Tatay Tom’ Avendano, and Greatway Financial insurance agent Norilyn Delos Reyes.

    Avendano has denied the selling of insurance in separate interviews with Global News and CTV.

    Avendano told CTV that the allegations are coming from people who lost in the 2018 election for board members.

    Avendano told Global News that MHHS is not in the business of selling insurance.

    According to the media release at the August 18 press conference, the insurance products were sold to “vulnerable caregivers and newcomers who came to them for help – and that people felt they had to ‘pay to play’ for access to services”.

    Rhea Villavicencio, a former MHHS staff member, spoke at the press conference held at the Vancouver office of B.C. NDP MLA Mable Elmore.

    “As a former staff member, I witnessed how Tatay Tom and Norilyn would pitch their insurance policies to clients who were at the agency for a settlement program,” Villavicencio said.

    “Caregivers who didn’t buy a policy or wanted to cancel it after finding out how expensive the premiums were would often be ostracized and made to not feel welcome at the MHHS.  Some also felt pressured into buying shares in the MHHS Co-op,” added Villavicencio.

    Jeanette Dotimas, former president of the MHHS Caregivers’ Advocate, also spoke at the press conference.

    “We also often organized fundraisers but we never received an accounting of the funds raised or where the money went.  When we began asking questions and pointing out examples of financial and organizational mismanagement, the MHHS Board dissolved our group.  This was also after I cancelled my insurance policy,” Dotimas said.

    “We sacrificed and came to Canada with the hopes of a better life.  We are heartbroken that our trust has been so deeply betrayed by ‘Tatay Tom’ and the MHHS Board of Directors,” explained Dotimas.

    “The MHHS is not a marketplace and the exploitation of caregivers there must end,” she also said.

    Avendano has stepped down as MHHS president and CEO effective July 31, 2019.

    His brother Demetrio, also known as Demi, and Tomas’ son Benedicto, also left the board.

    At the August 18 press conference, former MHHS staff member Crisanta Sampang also recounted her experience.

    Sampang was a caregiver coordinator and media Specialist, and was responsible for producing content about Avendano and the MHHS.

    “I began to notice that it stopped to be a ‘helping house’ and that it was being built to serve the needs of a just a few people,” said Sampang.

    In the media release, the group outlined the following recommendations:

    1.Stop the exploitation of caregivers and newcomers and end the conduct of private businesses at the MHHS;

    2.Replace the current board of directors with a qualified and independent board;

    3.Conduct an organizational assessment of the MHHS to identify and address the many corruption and governance problems present;

    4.Conduct a forensic financial audit of the MHHS for its last 10 years and of the Multicultural Helping House Foundation for the period since its establishment;

    5.Return the money, with interest, of all MHHS Co-op members requesting a refund.

    “We want to send a message to caregivers, especially those victimized, that they are not alone,” Sampang said. “They don’t need to live in fear.  Together we can overcome this and continue towards the brighter future we all came to Canada for.   We encourage caregivers to stand up and speak out and we hope the public will also stand with us.”

    Elmore started speaking to former employees, current clients and caregivers after she attended a July 27, 2019 meeting at the MHHS offices.

    Elmore said there appeared to be conflict of interest of board members, questions around governance and issues over financial transparency.

    “We need [the board members] to step down and for the MHHS to do the job that it’s intended to do, the job that is supported by the staff and the community – and the job that needs to be done,” Elmore said in a CTV report.

    Avendano said in the CTV report that he was advised by a lawyer to step down from the board.

    “Not true, very false,” Avendano said about the allegations. “They’re allegations that are brought forth by the losers of the elections.”

    MHHS executive director Will Davis said in the CTV report that he will cooperate in any investigation of the allegations.

    “The services that we provide continue to be professional,” Davis said. “We, being the staff, that are being completely vigilant and performing tasks for newcomers and new Canadians efficiently and by the book, and by our standards of the contracts that we sign with the different tiers of government.”

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