Local man offers help on ‘Secret Millionaire’

By now, the whole world knows Las Vegas is struggling. Heck, the local economy has generated so many negative headlines, even Mel Gibson unfriended it.

But you don’t need the latest economic indicators or a fancy college degree to tell things are getting better. You can see it on your TV: In the past couple of years, Las Vegas has gone from importing a "Secret Millionaire" to exporting one.

Back in 2008 — during the show’s ill-fated first incarnation on Fox, where it never really fit in among that network’s trashier reality fare of the time — Salt Lake City entrepreneur Gregory Haerr spent a week in downtown Las Vegas looking for good-hearted strangers to receive tens of thousands of dollars from his personal fortune.

Now a full-fledged hit on ABC, "Secret Millionaire" (8 p.m. today, KTNV-TV, Channel 13) sent Henderson motivational speaker James Malinchak to poverty-ravaged Gary, Ind., for six days to find people making a difference in that community — and to open up his checkbook to reward them.

Malinchak was reluctant to get involved, with the words "reality TV" setting off alarms in his head. Even when "Secret Millionaire" producers came to his home, he wasn’t truly sold on the idea until roughly 90 minutes into their pitch, when executive producer Leslie Garvin grabbed his arm and looked him in the eye.

"I give you my word," Malinchak says she told him, "we’re not gonna hurt people, we’re gonna help people. And this is gonna impact people and uplift people."

The episode finds Malinchak roaming the streets of Gary, pitching in and getting his hands dirty at a handful of local nonprofits, under the guise that he’s part of a documentary on volunteering.

As part of the ruse, he was loaned a beater with a busted windshield and a glowing "service engine soon" light. He was put up in a dirty, one-bedroom apartment with no shower and a toilet that wasn’t even connected to the floor. The neighborhood was so sketchy, he found an empty ammunition clip behind the window blinds, and he slept with a chair wedged against the front door and a kitchen knife nearby.

Malinchak won’t use the word "worst" when describing the different parts of his experience, insisting there was nothing bad about it.

"The most challenging (part) was, I had to get comfortable being uncomfortable, which sounds strange," he says. "But for the first time, I was all alone. Had no money, no credit cards, no cell phone, no computer, no family, no friends. Didn’t even have my own bed and pillow."

During his time in Gary, Malinchak wasn’t allowed even the simplest luxury of a book to read during his free moments. When he wasn’t volunteering, he mostly spent time alone with his thoughts — and at the grocery, figuring out what he could afford to eat on the stipend he was given, the equivalent of a week’s food stamps for a single man in Gary: $44.60.

But lest "Secret Millionaire" be thought of as some sort of urban take on "Survivor," Malinchak says he soon realized the show wasn’t about his struggles.

"In my opinion, the show’s called ‘Secret Millionaire,’ but it’s really not about the millionaire folks," he says. "It’s about the people on the show. Those are the real heroes."

During the course of his volunteering, Malinchak met with some of the people being helped by the programs: young girls who’ve had shots fired at their school bus; a worker whose sister was stabbed to death in her home. The whole enterprise, which slowly builds to the emotionally charged surprise check presentations, is designed to leave viewers a blubbering mess on their sofas.

And Malinchak didn’t take his part in it lightly. While he makes his living helping people better themselves, he says the "Secret Millionaire" experience enriched his life in ways he never expected.

"I hope viewers take away that there are amazing, beautiful people in this world — in their communities, in their local area — that are making a positive difference. And these folks never get recognized," he says of the show’s message. "And they don’t do it to get recognized, but, darn it, it’s just the right thing to do."

Malinchak has returned to Gary on his own and plans to keep going back. He’s hosting a screening party for tonight’s episode, and he’s flying in some of the people he calls "true angels" he encountered during his travels. And he’s proud of the lasting friendships he made along the way.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t glad to see his credit cards and mansion again when he finally was allowed to return to his life of privilege.

"The first thing I did was, I literally prayed and thanked God that, man, this was such an amazing, beautiful moment in my life. An experience, a journey that changed my entire heart, mind, soul and spirit. And I was just so grateful for that.

"And then the second thing was, I got my sister, and we went and got a big ol’ steak — because I’d been living on peanut butter and jelly — and we went and got just the biggest fillet you can get."

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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