Questions in Williamstown
The Institute for International Cooperation and Development campus is a collection of small, unassuming buildings scattered on a steep slope off Route 43. Most people don't notice the small sign by the Institute's dirt road. It reads "IICD: develop the world. develop yourself."
The nonprofit, nongovernmental organization has been in Williamstown since 1986, and the school says it offers a rigorous six-month program that trains about 80 students a year to be development instructors in humanitarian aid programs in Africa and Brazil.
But critics say the school is part of a global operation to support the luxurious lifestyle of its charismatic leader, a 67-year-old Danish man named Mogens Amdi Petersen.
Students pay $3,800 to enter the IICD program, and must raise $9,000 more before they can go overseas on their yearlong mission, where they live on a stipend of $150 a month.
To make their goal, the students, who must be at least 18 years old, take fundraising trips to as many as 15 states. And while many Berkshires residents might not know any IICD students, they might have contributed to their cause by dropping used clothing in one of the dozens of green-and-white boxes scattered throughout the county.
'All sorts of rumors'
Jytte Martinussen, 54, has been IICD's executive director since 2003. At a recent meeting at the school, her smile was both indulgent and guarded; it was the first time a journalist had been invited on campus in her three years there.
"We want the community to know," she said. "A lot of people don't know what IICD is. There's all sorts of rumors. People don't come up here and they don't see the place. There was a nude camp here before us."
Giggles slipped out from the IICD students seated around the table: Alejandro Arredondo, from Phoenix; Beatriz Jaicintho from Sao Paolo, Brazil; Towako Sawada from Ibaraki, Japan; and Francisco Magonagona Pedro, an instructor from Mozambique.
"I just want to teach as much as I can and learn about myself when I'm the outsider (in Africa)," said Arredondo, 18, who was wearing a T-shirt with the words "Knowledge is King" emblazoned on the front.
On this day, the multicultural roundtable group was in good spirits, but IICD has a dark history:
- It was started 21 years ago by a teacher from a Virginia school that was shut down by the Department of Mental Health and Retardation because of deplorable living conditions and the poor treatment of emotionally disturbed students, according to Kenneth Jordan, retired Mathews County (Va.) Sheriff. The teacher, Eric Newman, still serves on the board of directors in Williamstown.
- In 1991, five years after Newman resettled in Massachusetts for unknown reasons he has not returned phone calls or e-mails to The Eagle 15 students and former students who traveled to Central America filed complaints with the state attorney general's office charging the institute with misleading advertising.
The participants called the program "a survival training experience" and charged they were allotted so little money that they had to spend most of their time finding the cheapest ways to travel, sleep and eat.
Another complaint about IICD was sent to the attorney general in 2002, according to office spokesperson Erika Gully-Santiago, who declined to elaborate.
- Allegations of underhanded financial practices and a cult-like atmosphere have followed IICD and other nonprofit organizations associated with the school for more than 20 years.
"Maybe (detractors) talked about IICD 10 years ago," she said. "I can't have knowledge of everything that went on here."
Martinussen denied any illegal activity or misappropriated funds.
"We do our independent audit every year, and we are scrutinized (by the IRS) in the highest. There's no way that anything here is illegal. Otherwise, I wouldn't have a work permit in the U.S," said Martinussen, a Danish citizen.
Roaming the world
Martinussen and Newman are part of the Teachers' Group, or TG, or Tvind, an alliance formed in 1970 by 12 Danes who made up the Traveling Folk High School and roamed the world by bus, dog sled, boat, and thumb.
From 1970-1977, the school visited 135 countries and had 10,000 students, said Martinussen, who joined in 1972. In 1977, the Traveling Folk High School formed Humana People to People, and the teachers started building schools for orphaned refugees in apartheid Rhodesia now Mozambique.
Today, Humana and its offshoot organizations have programs in Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Angola and South Africa, and, according to Martinussen, Humana is overseeing nearly 200 projects.
Fund contributions to Humana's programs come from IICD and other Tvind-associated U.S. clothing collection programs, including Albany's Planet Aid and the one other IICD school in the United States, in Dowagiac, Mich.
Critics say the funds are channeled to Petersen, not to Humana's programs, but Martinussen defended the clothing operation.
"The surplus from the clothes collections goes to scholarships, running costs at IICD, and donations to humanitarian aid," Martinussen said.
The U.S. Embassy in Maputo, Mozambique, did not respond to The Eagle's inquiries about IICD and its programs.
Indictments in Denmark
The founder of the Teachers' Group is Petersen, who has not talked to the media for nearly three decades, according to Martinussen.
Depending on one's view, Petersen is either a global humanitarian, a humble friend, a cult mastermind, or a luxury-loving thief.
Petersen and seven other top-ranking Tvind associates were indicted in Denmark in 2002 on charges of tax fraud and embezzlement of humanitarian aid funds in excess of $25 million, but seven of the eight including Petersen were acquitted of all charges last August after more than 130 days of testimony.
Authorities had claimed Petersen built a lavish empire on the money earned from a variety of sources: pooled income from Tvind members, corporate grants for humanitarian projects, students' tuition, and clothing donations.
Martinussen said the allegations about Petersen were untrue.
"(He) was totally acquitted. There's nothing in the case," said Martinussen, who has been called an "honest, principled and well-meaning person" by Tvindalert.com, an IICD watchdog site. However, a Danish prosecutor has appealed the not-guilty verdict in six of the eight cases including Petersen's and Marianna Maver, a former teacher at Newman's school in Virginia, said Petersen's "lower-management people are all in denial."
"They've given everything away to Amdi," Maver said. "Money has sifted up to his life of luxury."
Maver, who now lives near Grand Rapids, Mich., added that she was "pressured" to give up her entry-level teacher's paycheck and return it to the school, and when she refused, she was "openly scorned."
She went on to describe the TG's adherents as "brainwashed" and "thoroughly committed to a life of poverty."
"It's rubbish," Martinussen said. "People think (Petersen) must be at the top and the rest of us are following blind as a cult. There have been a lot of stories that if you're a part of the Teachers' Group, you're not allowed to wear skirts and you must give up all of your personal belongings. The picture was created that Amdi was there and we were his stupid followers. It's not possible to explain to someone who doesn't have an open mind."
Martinussen said she earns "a teacher's salary" about $36,000 for being the executive director of IICD-Williamstown.
"But I can save out of that," she said. "Because of the way I live."
Martinussen jokingly opened one of the pockets on her parka and peered inside, indicating that nothing was there.
"When you have people pooling their money together, it gives you freedom," she said. "We have always used our money in a good way."
But when asked about $6 million the Teachers' Group reportedly spent on luxury apartments in Miami Beach in the late 1980s a move that critics such as Tvindalert uphold as an example of the humanitarian aid organization's callous display of wealth and thinly veiled dishonesty Martinussen said the purchase was pragmatic and well-timed.
"(It was purchased) before Miami was fashionable," she said. "We needed a place we could meet. We'd been living in the most awkward places, giving first priority to the students. As (the TG members) got older, we didn't have the energy we had. Yes ... we wanted a nice place we could relax."
In the end, she said, the TG sold the apartments, partly because of the criticism the group attracted. She also denied the apartments were solely for Petersen's pleasure.
"Ridiculous," she said. "It was for all of us."
'A tough thing'
Arredondo the 18-year-old IICD student in Williamstown and 30 other members of his team will leave in April for Mozambique. But before they go, each must come up with $12,800. The students do so by street canvassing, petitioning their churches or places of worship, and going door to door in neighborhoods.
Martinussen said her school has fundraising permits in 15 states on the East Coast, so students often are away for weeks at a time, trying to generate money so they can get to Africa or Brazil, places where they will teach AIDS/HIV prevention, train primary-school teachers, or establish preschools in the area.
"It's a tough thing," Martinussen said of the fundraising. "If they can raise that money, they can do anything."
Still, the students seem to be up for the challenge.
"This is very necessary," said Jaicintho, the Brazilian student. "We have to be ready to face things that may be difficult. Other schools don't have this schedule."
In December 2005, IICD started a clothing recycling project, and some proceeds went to scholarships for students who couldn't raise the initial $3,800, Martinussen said.
Currently, IICD has 245 clothing boxes in the Berkshire County and Albany areas and collects about 40,000 pounds of used clothing a week, she said. The clothing is sold to a thrift-store owner in Canada. Martinussen estimated IICD earned $200,000 in revenue from those sales in fiscal 2006.
Arredondo took part in the clothing collection project for two months.
"It was an experience in and of itself," he said. "It was challenging, but I felt like I was doing something for myself. I felt like I earned it. It was something that was going to help me get to Africa."
Criticism and praise
IICD's Spartan collection of buildings doesn't contain a whiff of glamour; in fact, Martinussen said, "We are struggling to survive."
The school's tax forms confirm the struggle. In fiscal 2005, IICD reported it operated at a deficit of $181,246 after donating $685,175 to "university-level educational travel programs which directly benefited poverty-level communities in Africa and Latin and South America through construction and miscellaneous projects."
But Maver, the former schoolteacher in Virginia, said she wonders about those numbers.
"They're able to look good on paper," she said. "But where are those humanitarian funds really going? To (what I call) the 'big pot' in Denmark."
For Mary Chaput of Dracut, Mass., IICD is an enigma, but she has placed her trust in the organization and in her 18-year-old daughter, Elyse, an IICD student who is on the biggest journey of her young life.
"Elyse called me this afternoon," Chaput said in a phone conversation in December. "She may be leaving for Mozambique later this week. Her fundraising is done, her lessons are done."
Despite everything she has read the mountains of rhetoric on IICD's Web site, the damning commentary on Tvindalert Chaput said she believes the only story is the strength and will of the students.
"These kids are amazing," she said. "I really want you to understand that."
Still, Chaput said she was unnerved by the fundraising aspect of IICD's training.
"That's the part I hate," she said. "The kids are always on the road. It's almost like they're panhandling."
She recalled that when she hosted eight students during a Boston canvassing mission, one of them talked of being grateful to be sleeping in a "safe" home, and not in a car.
"It just seemed grueling and discouraging," Chaput said. But she added that IICD's demanding preparatory program was appealing to Elyse, who is using her IICD experience as credits toward her junior year at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, because IICD offers "hands on" experience.
"With most of the other aid programs, you stay in a hotel," Chaput said.
That's not the case with IICD's fundraising, which requires a solidarity among the students.
"It's very important that people know it's a demanding program," Martinussen said. "We stay together, we're a community. Some people, when they inquire (about the training), they think that volunteering is something they don't have to pay for."
As for the whisperings by former teachers such as Maver that the students are being indoctrinated into a cult, Chaput said that couldn't be further from the truth.
"They seem to be so independent," she said. "They're definitely not cult material. I've been blessed to know them."
The mood in Africa
By mid-December, Elyse Chaput had reached her destination at a school in Lamego, Mozambique. In e-mails to friends and family, she waxed poetic about the "beautiful" people in Lamego, the grueling journey to get there, and the magnificence of the African sky the shooting stars are close enough to touch, she wrote.
"Life is great here, but it is hard," she said. "In America we think we need all these things to be happy, but we don't."
And what about Tvind, IICD, and the controversy surrounding her school?
"I do have a lot of issues with a lack of info about where money goes," Elyse told The Eagle in an e-mail in December. "I knew about Tvind and all that jazz, but honestly you don't think about it at IICD. There's no mention at all of Tvind. But I looked at a lot of options and am still glad I chose this organization."
Despite her daughter's optimism, the money issue the fundraising, tuition costs, Elyse's meager stipend in Mozambique has bothered Chaput, who said she did significant research on the program when Elyse was planning to join IICD.
Martinussen said she appreciates people who take that approach.
"We're open to anyone, and we can make mistakes. We never said this program was for everyone. You can't do this for selfish reasons."
And with that, she paused, her eyes welling with frustrated tears.
"Africa is getting poorer," she said. "Things are getting worse, and why is that? All the things that have been done have not worked. I want to focus on doing good and achieving something. If you don't want to take part, that's fine. Just leave us to do what we do."
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