CHARITY REMAINS UNBROKEN

Supporters keep group afloat after bracelet recall

 

Boston Sunday Globe Sept. 30, 2007,By Jenn Abelson

 

Thursday was supposed to be a big day for Friends of Mel Foundation. A national television crew from the "Today" show had planned to visit the cancer charityís new Hingham offices and film volunteers bagging the colorful memorial bracelets for an upcoming segment about Breast Cancer Awareness month.

Instead, about a dozen volunteers crammed around tables Thursday, no television crew in sight, to help the foundation deal with the fallout of a major recall of the beaded accessories after lead from one of the memorial bracelets caused an infant to fall ill.

One group of women sorted through boxes of envelopes from people who had mailed back bracelets since Sept. 21, when the foundation issued the recall after independent testing confirmed the presence of lead. Others took the tainted accessories - each one with a card that said "In Memory of Mel SimmonsÖThis fund continues to grow while her love lives on" - out of the plastic bags, where they had put them just weeks ago.

"I was ready to hang it up," said Pauline Alighieri, president and a cofounder of the organization. "I didnít think we could get through it. But nobody was going to give up on it, so why would I?"

Over the past week, volunteers, lawyers, and public relations specialists, along with Alighieri and the foundationís board of directors, have worked around the clock to keep Friends of Mel afloat. They halted orders of the memorial bracelets and replaced the charityís website home page with an apology letter. They found a local company willing to bring in extra workers to restring the bracelets at a discount. And they promised supporters that Friends of Mel - named in honor of Simmons, a South Shore resident who died of breast cancer in 2005 - would come back stronger than ever.

But the recall of the bracelets could not have come at a worse time for the foundation. With Breast Cancer Awareness month starting next week, Friends of Mel had scheduled dozens of events where it planned to sell bracelets and raise funds beyond the $1 million it had donated to Massachusetts General Hospital. Instead, the cancer charity shipped 10,000 bracelets back from New Orleans where they were supposed to be sold over the next month. Boxes of the accessories returned from merchants across the state are piled up in a supply room in the bare offices Friends of Mel moved into two weeks ago.

And the extent of the damage is still unclear: Friends of Mel sold more than 200,000 bracelets over the past two years. About 150,000 more bracelets are in storage, and several thousand others are in the hands of groups, such as a Girl Scout troop in Plymouth, which was helping the foundation bag the bracelets to sell online and at 100 stores across Massachusetts and Florida. Merchants give all of the money from bracelet sales to the charity.

After issuing the recall Sept. 22, Alighieri spent the weekend at the office fielding calls. She feared angry voices on the other line, with people yelling at her for not doing enough to safeguard the bracelets. Foundation officials say they were misled by a Chinese supplier, Ningbo Metal Manufacturing, which had promised in writing before signing a contract that the silver rings between the colorful beads did not contain lead. Ningbo officials did not return several messages.

All weekend, the phone didnít stop ringing at Friends of Mel. But they were not the calls Alighieri expected. People offered sympathy and support, asking if they could help restring bracelets. Others said they would not take the bracelets off, despite the health risk - they meant too much.

While Simmons, a former flight attendant, was being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital, her former colleagues brought her colorful bracelets from their trips abroad. Simmons handed the bracelets out on the oncology floor to doctors, nurses, and patients. And soon enough, they became a badge of solidarity, and other people began asking where they could get the bracelets.

Since the recall, several new merchants contacted the foundation to order the bracelets when Friends of Mel begins selling them again.

"I want to support them. Itís a good cause and now the bracelets will be extra safe," said Helen Francis, who put her name on a waiting list so she can sell the bracelets at her store, The Packet, in Dartmouth.

As volunteers this week began opening packages of bracelets mailed back to the foundation, they found some surprises. Five people sent donation checks with the bracelets they returned, totaling $150. Many sent orders for new bracelets. Some, like Peggy Power of Wilmington, came up with their own solutions. Power decided to paint clear nail polish around the tainted silver rings.

"I just canít fathom having the foundation spend the time and money to replace the bracelet instead of focusing on its charity," Power said. "They handled the problem with a lot of class."

The Friends of Mel Foundation is the latest US organization caught up in a spate of massive recalls of products from China because of high lead content. Mattel Inc. ordered recalls this summer involving more than 21 million China-made toys and this week another half-million toys were recalled by other manufacturers because of high lead levels. Alighieri says she believes these recalls made it easier for people to forgive the foundation for its oversight.

"Most people feel the foundation is not in the business of manufacturing bracelets, and they are willing to lay the blame elsewhere, as opposed to companies whose core business is making and selling toys," said Frederic Brunel, an associate professor of marketing at Boston University. "But some of these charities may need to rethink their strategies of selling products to raise money because if people start to fear these products may be potentially harmful, then they may not buy them."

For Friends of Mel, the focus is getting the bracelets restrung as quickly as possible. About 1,800 bracelets have been made using the same beads, which do not contain lead, and a small supply of silver-toned rings from Bangkok that are free of lead. The new bracelets feature two pink beads next to each other to help distinguish them from the old ones. The charity is having them tested again and plans to start sending bracelets out in the next few weeks. For the long term, Friends of Mel is hoping to find a US supplier and manufacturer for the bracelets.

"This has been a blow for us all. Weíre really disappointed," said Joanne Smith of Mashpee, one of the volunteers helping the foundation earlier this week. "But we hope we can recover stronger from this. Itís very spiritual for us all.

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