Failing Courage

Despite helping hand from state prison system, the evangelical Christian nonprofit’s fundraising prowess has faded quickly since regulatory scandal

An evangelical nonprofit largely responsible for identifying Sacramento as a hub for sex trafficking is bleeding cash less than two years after regulatory violations forced it to close a safe house for sexually exploited girls.

According to limited financial disclosures available on its website, Courage Worldwide Inc. brought in $242,141 in revenue last year, a stunning 600 percent drop from 2015, when Courage was at the height of its powers and raised more than $1.7 million through government grants and private donations.

The precarious financial situation represents a fall from grace for Courage’s camera-friendly founder, Jenny Williamson, who says God told her to open a Christian sanctuary for children sold into sexual slavery. “Mama Jenny,” as she likes to be called, once commanded the trust of politicians, law enforcement agencies, media outlets and everyday donors moved by her sermons of an epidemic hiding in plain sight.

“It feels like my daughters are being raped, abused, sold and tortured,” she said during a December 2016 fundraiser at Living Water Church in Elk Grove. “So anything that happens to me personally doesn’t compare to that. It’s not even worth talking about actually. That’s why we do what we do.”

To help these children, Williamson said, she opened a six-bed group home on a sprawling ranch property in the greater Sacramento area. The home was called a Courage House. And soon Williamson was using it to leverage financial support to franchise Courage Houses across California and beyond. That vision never materialized, even as money poured in.

Behind the scenes, state licensing inspectors identified numerous violations. Among them: Staff displaced girls from the home to host prospective donors. Staff confiscated girls’ cellphones and withheld requested court documents. Clients had their images used in marketing materials without their permission. Williamson herself was cited for hugging and touching girls without their consent. The group home was cited for pushing its brand of Christianity on the girls in its care, including one instance where staff anointed a girl’s forehead with oil and prayed over her after concluding her drawings were satanic.

The problems culminated in the summer of 2016, following Courage’s most lucrative year, when a staffing shortage forced the group home to close and Williamson initially didn’t tell the public. After months of asking for donations to reopen, Williamson quietly sold the 50-acre campus last year. She opened “Courage House Too” in a small rented home last summer. Up to six former clients, now adults, are granted residency and provided case management. In return, they are required to pay rent and perform chores. The operation functions as an unlicensed room and board, but with a religious component.

“The program will be the same as for minors but without state regulations and restrictions,” Courage Worldwide states on its website. “Because of that, Courage House Too will be entirely privately funded. Residents will pay rent, participate in the family responsibilities, and be coached in making healthy choices for independent living.”

No one answered the phone at Courage on Monday and messages to it and Williamson were not returned before print deadline.

Not everyone is on board with the sequel. While Courage is still listed as a member of the Sacramento Together Against Human Trafficking coalition, the county district attorney’s office says that hasn’t been accurate for nearly a year.

“We have not been formally told that they have exited the coalition but do not consider them a participating member,” said Assistant Chief Deputy DA Paul Durenberger in an email.

There seems to be some confusion about that. As recently as July 24, the DA’s official Twitter account tweeted at Courage Worldwide and other Sacramento Together members in a video featuring Durenberger discussing the coalition’s work. Courage Worldwide retweeted the video.

Courage hasn’t lost all of its law enforcement support. In an August 20 employee newsletter for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees, an article titled “Force for good” promoted an upcoming “Courage Triathlon,” the fifth straight year CDCR staff was asked to participate in the annual fundraiser. The article stated that the triathlon has raised more than $60,000 since its 2013 inception.

A CDCR spokeswoman contended that the triathlon and the article about it didn’t constitute official support for Courage, though she acknowledged that the production and dissemination of the article required staff time that was compensated through the state’s general fund.

“An employee newsletter article about an off-site and volunteer event does not constitute any type of endorsement,” said CDCR press secretary Vicky Waters in an email. “We are very transparent about what we do. If you take the time to read other articles in the newsletter, you will see that we write about a variety of topics. Also, promoting good citizenship among staff is a legitimate use of taxpayer funds.”

Courage can use all the help—official or otherwise—that it can get. Last year’s revenue total is by far the lowest in at least eight years of tax-exempt filings. A fundraising email in July 2017 explained that the nonprofit could no longer afford the mortgage of the ranch property since it was no longer eligible to receive public funding. Last month, Williamson embarked on a campaign to raise $100,000 in 100 days.

“We are dependent upon God but funded by individuals who have a heart for the work we do and the population we serve,” Williamson wrote in a message announcing the campaign. “We don’t have any grant or government funding at this time. Therefore, we are asking you to prayerfully consider partnering with us—or continuing to partner with us—to bring more girls home.”