A volunteer group accused of engaging in “cult-like” activities has been advertising on campus for at least two weeks as part of a nationwide recruitment campaign. Although organization leaders could not verify if any GW students have joined the group, the International Humana People to People Movement has been recruiting on college campuses since 1970.
Fliers for the Humana organization have been spotted on advertising columns near the Academic Center and the School of Media and Public Affairs. Student Judicial Services officials said they have not approved any poster distribution for the group within academic or residential facilities.
Zahara Heckscher, co-author of the book “How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas,” said Humana leaders exploit program participants while they volunteer in African countries. She said group leaders force volunteers to work in substandard conditions in order to “break them down emotionally.”
Members perform different community service projects, including planting trees, while in Africa. But past participants have cited complaints including long hours, emotional abuse, isolation from family members and unsafe conditions.
Heckscher also said Humana is a front organization for Tvind, a Danish volunteer organization accused of exploiting its volunteers while they work in African countries. Several countries, including Denmark and Holland, are investigating Tvind-affiliated groups, including Humana, for fraud and tax evasion, according to the BBC News Web site.
“Tvind is a cult or cult-like organization that is not a legitimate volunteer program,” said Heckscher, who said she participated in a year-long Tvind program in Zambia in 1987. A cult is a group considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
Heckscher said she left the group in 1988 after she determined it was not a legitimate organization.
Ruth Ford, a program manager for Humana, said people who volunteer for the organization are sent to either California or Massachusetts, where they participate in a four to six-month training program before volunteering for six-month long humanitarian projects in Botswana, Mozambique or Zambia. She said the average age of volunteers is 26, but would not disclose the number of people currently volunteering in Humana programs.
Ford, 30, of New Zealand, said Humana is a legitimate volunteer organization that helps impoverished Africans.
She said volunteers pay $3,300 for the program, which includes food, accommodations, air travel and health insurance.
Heckscher said Tvind operates under several different names besides Humana, including the Teachers Group and the Institute for International Cooperation and Development. The Teachers Group is an organization of 50 people who pool their money together to fund volunteer programs in Africa.
Heckscher also said Humana profits from the $3,300 that volunteers pay to participate in the programs. She said many volunteers are then tricked into giving all their money to Humana.
“I think $3,300 is a reasonable amount of money to pay for a legitimate organization, but this not a legitimate organization,” she said.
Ford said there is no economic connection between Humana and Tvind, and called them “sister institutions” with like-minded goals. Ford is also a member of the Teachers Group. She said while several members of the Teachers Group – including herself – also participate in Humana programs, there is no economic connection between the two.
Ford also defended the Teachers Group’s practice of pooling money, and denied that Humana volunteers are pressured into giving their money to the group.
Heckscher said Humana advertises at GW and other universities because students are young and idealistic.
Ford said Humana regularly post fliers and holds information sessions on college campuses, but refused to disclose specific details about where and how Humana recruits.
“What Tvind has done is set up regional branches around the U.S. in areas in close proximity to college campuses,” said Rich Ross, executive director of the Ross Institute, a non-profit group that investigates cult activity.
Study Abroad Director Lynn Leonard said she has never heard of Humana, and added that students should be cautious when signing up for volunteer programs.
This article appeared in the May 19, 2003 issue of the Hatchet.