So they were thrilled when ABC called to invite them to audition for their new fall show, Secret Millionaire, in which people of means infiltrate some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in America with the goal of finding deserving organizations or individuals to help. The millionaires must agree to give away at least $100,000 of their own money.
The couple was put through an extensive vetting process, which included several phone interviews, questionnaires and background checks, and a home visit from three of the producers.
“It was kind of weird having them dig into our lives,” said Diane Heavin. “Here we were, eager to give our time and resources to people in need, and we weren’t sure if we were going to be selected until the very end. But the process helped them confirm that we had good intentions and allowed us to develop a relationship with the team. I really respect ABC for their integrity.”
After being selected, the Heavins received a filming date and were told to pack the bare essentials: one small backpack each with basic toiletries and a few sets of clothes…all unbranded. They had to look as if they belonged in the place they would be “dropped” for ten days.
And they had no idea where that would be.
It wasn’t until the plane taxied down the runway that they were told they’d be going to Houston’s Third Ward and dropped in an area known for its drugs, crime, and domestic violence. Their temporary home was a 1920s row house with no air conditioning and the frequent sounds of gunshots and people shouting obscenities at each other and their kids.
“The house should have been condemned,” said Diane Heavin. “It was filthy and the plumbing had to have been original. But the worst thing was the lack of air conditioning in the 100-plus-degree humid weather.”
“Actually, that’s not quite true,” continued Diane. “The worst thing about the house was sharing a wall with neighbors who screamed and cursed at their precious children and fought with each other until all hours. It was really heartbreaking.”
"What we found overwhelmingly, though, was a strong sense of community--from the neighborhood garden to the church down the street. We got to participate in some of the best gospel worship that we've ever experienced!"
The Heavins were given a car to drive--which they described as a “true clunker”--and a cover story which cast them as participants in the filming of a documentary on philanthropy. This helped explain the producers and camera crew that followed them everywhere.
“To be convincing with our cover, Gary and I decided to go back 20 years to when we really were poor,” said Diane. “We never lived in conditions that extreme, but we remember having nothing and pinching pennies to make ends meet. This mindset allowed us to open up to the people we met and get to know them better.”
The ABC producers did their homework, scouting the location ahead of time and prescreening charities that they thought might be of interest to the Heavins.
“They never told us where to go, but they left a lot of clues and I think we picked up on most of them,” said Gary Heavin. “They did a great job in finding worthy organizations that are helping people with needs that most of us can’t even imagine. We gave not only our money but our time and our hearts to these wonderful charities.”
The three organizations the Heavins met with include:
The Lazarus House
provides a complete, low cost program of wellness in a comfortable environment for chronically ill clients suffering from disease-related wasting or cachexia.
· No More Victims
, Inc. addresses the physical, emotional and scholastic needs of children experiencing the trauma of parental incarceration. · The Sean Ashley House
provides a meaningful living environment for children and adults with autism and other disabilities.
The Heavins had more than a week to get to know not only the staff at each of these organizations, but also some of the people they serve. At The Lazarus House, they worked out in the gym with HIV patients, and at the Sean Ashley House they bonded with a blind woman and an autistic young man.
During their travels in and around the Third Ward, they stumbled upon the neighborhood in which Gary’s parents had lived when he was born.
“The area is now impoverished,” said Gary. “Seeing it made me realize that had my father not broken the cycle of poverty, I might have had a very different life.”
“The whole thing was just an incredible experience,” he said. “One that is kind of hard to put into words. We filmed 18 hours a day and got very little sleep. We learned a lot about poverty and the people who endure it on a daily basis. In many ways, it was both the best and the worst week of our lives.”
“Through it all,” he continued, “our appreciation for our own lives grew but so did our sense of duty to help others less fortunate. We were given the rare opportunity to go on a journey that changed our lives while allowing us to change others’ lives. We hope the show’s viewers will go on that journey along with us.”
The Heavin's episode airs Sunday, April 3 at 8/7c on ABC. Click here
to watch the promo video.