RICHMOND -- All Belinda Thomas knew was that a documentary film crew wanted to shoot some footage about local nonprofits, and a woman named Debbie Johnston was going to be a volunteer helper.
"We are always happy to highlight the city and, of course, to welcome volunteers," said Thomas, a registered nurse and co-founder of Reach Fellowship International, a North Richmond community center that provides job training, employment, and medical education and services. "I had no idea it was anything other than that."
Days after the September 2011 meeting with Johnson and the camera crews, the truth was revealed. Thomas and her colleagues and clients were on ABC-TV's "Secret Millionaire," a reality show in which millionaires go incognito into poor communities and live on bare-bones wages before agreeing to give away tens of thousands of dollars.
"Shock would be an understatement, but it was a pleasant shock," Thomas said.
The show sent Johnston, a businesswoman from Richmond, Va., to the Bay Area and charged her with finding deserving community organizations to assist. Reach Fellowship focuses on disadvantaged and previously incarcerated women. Johnston's visit also included tours with the NIAD Art Center, a studio and program for adult artists with developmental and other disabilities; and the nonprofit group Self-Sustaining Communities, which has urban farms to help people feed and provide for themselves.
In the show, Johnston lives for a week on $32 to experience firsthand how the destitute have to subsist and doesn't reveal her true identity until the end of her stay, when she decides on awarding funding to the organizations.
Edwina Perez-Santiago, who cofounded Reach with Thomas in 2007, said contractual agreements prevent her from revealing how much money was donated to her organization, but she said long-term sustainability got a significant boost.
"We're stable, we're not going anywhere," Perez-Santiago said. "And not long ago, we weren't sure if we could pay the rent on our facility. It's more than just the money; the show has opened a
Reach Fellowship International has a client roll of more than 50 women in North Richmond, Thomas said, providing a range of services, including counseling, job training, health education and health care access assistance. Many of the women have serious health challenges, including HIV and diabetes, and are recovering substance abusers.
Johnston grew up on a farm in Virginia and founded the home health care company Care Advantage, Inc. in 1988. Care Advantage has grown into a leading home health care company with more than 3,000 employees.
The show's donation makes a big difference to Reach Fellowship, which relies on private donations and some county and city funding to comprise the bulk of its $200,000 annual budget.
"More than anything, I hope people watch and get inspired to build other programs," Thomas said. "If we can do what we do with almost nothing, maybe others can be inspired to chip in and be part of the positive movements going on in Richmond and North Richmond."
Next on the agenda is a viewing party Sunday at Reach's offices at 1662 Fred Jackson Way. Dozens are expected to gather around the little television at the office at 8 p.m. on Channel 7 to see images recorded almost two years ago.
"I'm nervous," Perez-Santiago said. "I've been trying to remember what I said and what I was wearing, so it's going to feel new to me."
What: Viewing party for "The Secret Millionaire" featuring Reach Fellowship International
When: Gathering begins at 7 p.m.; show starts at 8 p.m. on Channel 7
Where: Reach Fellowship, 1662 Fred Jackson Way, Richmond