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State Senate candidate refuses to discuss allegations regarding charity trip

Barnhill with college classmates on charity trip to South Africa that prompted backlash. (Source: Andrew Barnhill) Barnhill with college classmates on charity trip to South Africa that prompted backlash. (Source: Andrew Barnhill)
WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) -

Andrew Barnhill is running for one of the highest elected offices in the state, seeking to represent you in the North Carolina Senate. But shortly after he announced his candidacy last year, people from his past started reaching out to us to share concerns about his plans for public office.

Former college classmates of his, who spoke to us on background for fear of backlash from fellow classmates, told us about an incident they say happened when Barnhill was a student at Furman University. While that may sound like a long ago time, it wasn’t. Barnhill is only 28 years old, one of the youngest candidates to run for state senate in recent memory.

During the 2008-2009 school year, Barnhill was president of an on-campus volunteer service organization called the Heller Service Corps. During that time, Heller teamed up with Cargo of Dreams, a charity based in South Africa.

Furman student volunteers upfitted a cargo container into a classroom to be used by impoverished school children in South Africa.

After it was finished, Barnhill and three other classmates went to South Africa to visit the community that would benefit from the new classroom. But sources say he spent a miniscule amount of time at that site, and spent much more time enjoying himself at an upscale casino and resort.

After getting the tip from his classmates, we reached out to Cargo of Dreams Director Marius van der Colff. Van der Colff corroborated what Barnhill’s classmates said about Barnhill’s itinerary on the international trip, and added Barnhill was an “extreme manipulator” who would be unfit for public office.

Recalling Barnhill’s time in South Africa, van der Colff said, “There are people in poverty. You can go and visit these people. You can go and see these people face to face. The living conditions in which they live, and then knowing that you’re actually staying in a top class resort and you’re just here to party? And even if you get caught at that, it still doesn’t dawn on you – you have no sense of remorse? …. I think it shows a total lack of character.”

Barnhill, a Democrat challenging incumbent Republican Michael Lee in the November general election, has consistently refused to do an on-camera interview or even meet with us to discuss the allegations. Instead, he has responded via email and addressed these allegations on a limited basis.

The charity and the trip

Cargo of Dreams is a non-profit, Christian organization that allows people to provide hands-on relief to people living in impoverished parts of the world without ever having to leave the country. Volunteers convert standard shipping containers into classrooms and health clinics, and the upfitted containers are then shipped to other countries.

While this model relieves the need for a large group of people to travel internationally, Cargo of Dreams often hosts a small group of volunteers to come oversees and visit the people who will benefit from their charity. In 2009, Barnhill and a group of fellow Furman students traveled to South Africa to visit the Cargo of Dreams site.

Charity director recalls interaction with Barnhill

Van der Colff said his first interaction with Barnhill was over the phone.

“Andrew said he was going to come to South Africa and see the project, I assumed that was the primary purpose of his trip to South Africa was to engage with the project and engage with the people who were the beneficiaries of the project," van der Colff said.

As he typically does with volunteers, van der Colff offered to help with Barnhill’s travel arrangements and accommodations, even offering a free place to stay in his own home. He also suggested Barnhill spend at least a night with some of the families in the community being served by the charity, just to experience what their life was like.

“Every time we would go through it he would say, ‘No, no, no. Coming to visit the project is not the primary purpose for his trip,’" van der Colff recalled. “He actually had some study commitments, but he’ll make time for the project he wanted to see that as well. So we accepted that. We didn’t question it. And so we adjusted the time, we adjusted the arrangements, until it finally boiled down that he would only spend one morning with us, and ultimately he spent an hour, an hour and a half with the project leader on site.”

Instead of the suggested accommodations, van der Colff says Barnhill stayed at Sun City, “Africa’s Kingdom of Pleasure” according to the resort’s website. It goes on to describe Sun City as “One of Africa’s premier vacation destinations…internationally recognized for its superb resort offerings of hotels…from the lavish opulence of The Palace of the Lost City to the casual elegance of the Cascades…Sun City delivers plenty to see and do in a beautiful, malaria-free landscape.”

Van der Colff says it wasn’t until after the trip was over that he found out Furman was under a very different impression about what Barnhill’s itinerary would entail in South Africa.

“It was only afterward, and I don’t recall the details, how I found out or when Furman contacted me and said like - that was not the purpose for his trip… So Furman then contacted me and asked more details on how long he spent at the project and what he did, and I said he was only there for an hour and a half. And then they called me and said, 'No, that was not the purpose for his trip. And that he lied to you and he lied to them as far as what he did in South Africa and what the money was used for and all of that.'”

Due to fall-out from this trip, fellow students said Barnhill was asked to step down from his position as president of Heller Service Corps. Barnhill denies being asked to resign, but did not explain why he was president of the group for his sophomore and junior year and then stepped down for his senior year following this trip.

Barnhill Campaign Responds

This was the Barnhill Campaign’s written response to our request for an explanation:

"While there were certainly disappointments among those who did not get to go on the trip and by the Cargo of Dreams organization about who was chosen to attend, if anything, the trip to Africa represents Andrew's longstanding commitment to serving others. While on the trip, participants had the chance to tour a variety of areas of South Africa and stayed in both rural townships and in the cities in areas that were the most safe for international visitors. Parts of the trip were paid for by the university and parts of the trip were paid for by the students….”

Barnhill also provided us with some pictures from his trip to South Africa.

Running for Public Office

Van der Colff says he has forgiven Barnhill. Still, he says he’s concerned to hear he is seeking elected office, after seeing what he perceived as Barnhill’s lack of regard for the children suffering in South Africa.

“You see someone that comes in and it doesn’t affect them. They have fun, they just spend money, live in the nice resort, just having a party and a blast on someone else’s account, when that trip was supposed to be for good?”

“We all make mistakes and there is grace for all of us. I think how you deal with your mistakes reflects character or at least a teachable spirit. So ideally you’d like to see if someone made a mistake that you own your mistake, you apologize for it and you do whatever is humanly possible to fix it, and that you learn from it,” van der Colff said, explaining that Barnhill’s lack of ownership of his alleged missteps in South Africa seemed even worse than the initial offense.

Furman University provides limited response

Furman University has had little to say about Barnhill’s involvement on the trip.

Connie Carson, the Vice President for Student Life, explained it is Furman’s policy “not to comment on students’ or former students’ education records in compliance with FERPA.”

After being pressed for further information, and getting a request from Barnhill, Furman Dean of Students Jason Cassidy did release this brief statement:

“During Mr. Barnhill’s time at Furman he was not found in violation of any of Furman University’s conduct policies. Mr. Barnhill is considered to be in good standing with Furman University.”

The statement stops short of saying if there were any type of disciplinary hearings or anything similar following the alleged issues in South Africa.

Two other faculty members that Barnhill suggested we reach out to said they did not have knowledge of this situation.

Barnhill denies that any type of disciplinary hearing took place. He also shared this information as part of the campaign’s written statement:

“In the same year [as the trip] at Furman, President George W. Bush traveled to campus and presented Andrew with the President's Voluntary Service Award and after the trip, Furman selected Andrew to represent the university at the national LeaderShape Seminar. In addition, in his senior year, Andrew received the university's Endel Medal for speech in the face of adversity. To this day, Andrew is regularly asked to represent the university as an alum at functions throughout North Carolina and serves as an ambassador for the development and admissions programs of the university."

We reached out to 3 of Barnhill’s former classmates who traveled with him to South Africa. One never responded, one said he would call us back but never did, and a third sent a vague email response but declined our request to discuss the trip by phone.

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