One Small Victory at a Time

September 4, 2013

Meet Good Neighbor Finalist Bernice Helman - Coldwell Banker Troy Helman, REALTORS®, Terre Haute, Ind. She leads by example, inspiring people to give back and defy the odds.

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 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, who owns Coldwell Banker Troy Helman, REALTORS®, in Terre Haute, with her husband Troy. “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.”

“Terre Haute for several years has had the distinction of being No. 1 in childhood poverty in Indiana,” says Troy Fears, CEO of United Way of the Wabash Valley, which includes Terre Haute and a half-dozen nearby rural counties and 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. But still, 54 percent of our children are on free or reduced school lunches. We live in a very struggling area, and the need is very great.”

By holding to her pledge to live on that meager food stamps allocation, Helman, who started selling real estate in 2006 after a 20-year career in mortgage banking, made a small but important dent in the area’s need, raising thousands of dollars in just that one week.

But her impact has been far greater. Helman, who served as 2011 fundraising chair for the local United Way, helped lead 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, taking some $300,000 in annual donations with it.

“What she does every year is nothing short of phenomenal,” says Fears, who also took part in the food stamps challenge. “2011 was a critical year, because it was the first year we had no contributions from Pfizer. But with Bernice we not only met our goal but exceeded it, the first time we had done that in 15 years.”

“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® and broker-owner of Century 21 Advantage in Terra Haute. “If ever there was a person we needed to step up to the plate, Bernice is the person."

What Helman is, say people who know her, is a leader whose example over the years of tireless giving, in time, money, and energy, turns others into inspired leaders in their own right. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s extremely competitive.

“You have to be competitive to succeed in our business, and Bernice is one of the most competitive people I know,” says Chiado. “And I say that in the most positive way. When she sets her mind to something, she does it.”

Her fearless dedication has inspired her to some crazy fundraising antics, like collecting donations from the roof of a grocery store for 12 hours in freezing rain, or performing in Dancing with the Terre Haute Stars.

What that has meant is years of successful fundraising despite the area’s economic hardship. “When Pfizer left, we had to move to more project-based fundraising, as opposed to paycheck deductions,” says Fears. “Event-based fundraising is much more difficult, much more time-consuming. But Bernice created a 40-person campaign cabinet and got the job done.”

In addition to chairing the local United Way’s fundraising committee in its record-breaking year, she has led or helped lead more fundraising drives than her colleagues can tally up, each of which 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 the 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.

“I always feel that if I can just help one person, then it makes all the difference, especially when it involves children. They’re the ones who really struggle,” she says.

Helman remembers one boy, about 8 years old, who participated in a Christmas store that 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, and the hope that we can make life a little easier even if it’s only for just one person.”

—By Rob Freedman, REALTOR® Magazine

Contact Bernice Helman at Learn more about the United Way of Wabash Valley.