Bernice Helman knows what it’s like to live on $4.57 a day. For a week in 2011, she and two dozen other business leaders and public officials in and around Terre Haute, Ind., pledged to do what thousands of Indiana residents must do every day: feed themselves on a bare-bones allocation of food stamps under the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “The hunger doesn’t go away,” says Helman. “I understand why kids don’t do well in school. I couldn’t think at work. I couldn’t exercise. I never knew what ‘food insecurity’ meant until I experienced it myself.”
For several years, the city of Terre Haute (pop. 61,000) had the unenviable distinction of being No. 1 in childhood poverty in Indiana, says Troy Fears, CEO of United Way of the Wabash Valley. The organization supports 32 local charities, many focusing on early childhood education and community health. “That’s starting to improve. I think we’re No. 2 now. Still, 54 percent of our children qualify for free or reduced school lunches. We live in a very struggling area, and the need is very great.” Unemployment has hovered between 10 and 11 percent for the past four years.
Keeping her pledge to live on that meager food stamps allocation, Helman helped generate local media coverage that raised awareness about the prevalence of hunger insecurity in the Terre Haute area.
But her impact has gone far beyond shining a spotlight on the issue. Six years ago, she launched the “Grillin’ and Chillin’ ” picnic for real estate professionals, which raises $10,000 to $15,000 each year. Helman, who served as 2011 fundraising chair for the local United Way organization and continues to serve on the board, led the charity to a record year of donations—more than $1.8 million—even as one of the area’s biggest employers, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, pulled up stakes and left town, taking some $300,000 in annual donations with it.
“I can say without hesitation that Bernice has been a godsend for this area,” says Thomas Chiado, president of the Terre Haute Area Association of REALTORS®. “If ever there was a person we needed to step up to the plate, Bernice is the person.”
Her fearless dedication has inspired her to try eye-catching antics that are unlikely to be found in any fundraising textbook, like standing on the roof of a grocery store for 12 hours in freezing rain, lowering and raising a bucket that passersby filled with donations. There was also the time she performed in Dancing with the Terre Haute Stars, which collected $126,000 for the group CHANCES for Indiana Youth.
In addition to heading the local United Way’s fund-raising committee in its record-breaking year, Helman has led or helped lead more fundraising drives than her colleagues can tally up. Each event generates tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Power of the Purse, one fundraiser she helped spearhead, brought 200 women executives together once a quarter for lunch and an auction. In one year, the program raised $50,000 for Success by 6, a literacy program that helps disadvantaged children learn to read by kindergarten.
Fears credits Helman with setting in motion a program to expand the local United Way’s donor base by reaching beyond Terre Haute to nearby counties. These counties, largely rural and with significant rates of poverty, have long been on the receiving end of the funds the United Way collects; now they’re on the giving end, too. “We wanted people to know we provided programming and funds to those counties and to get the business people in them engaged,” Fears says.
Helman is driven by an awareness of what her fund-raising accomplishes. She recalls one boy, about 8 years old, who participated in a Christmas store she helped organize for a local Catholic Charities organization a couple of years ago. Each child was invited to select one gift.
The boy selected a doll. “I said to him, ‘Are you sure you want a doll? Are you sure that’s what you want to pick?’ And he said it was for his sister, that he wanted her to have something to open on Christmas. To be that young and worrying about that—it was a moment that reminded me why we work so hard to bring in donors and get business people to devote their time to these efforts. We do it for the kids. We do it for all the people who need help.”