The Joy of Giving Back:
By Aliah O'Neill, Contributor
December / January 2012
The RTE show Secret Millionaire followed American hotelier John Fitzpatrick as he spent a week undercover in one of Ireland’s poorest communities.
When Business 100 honoree John Fitzpatrick was approached by RTE (Ireland’s national television and radio broadcaster) to appear on Secret Millionaire, he balked. “I thought someone was playing a joke. I was annoyed that someone would even consider doing a program like that, the way Ireland is [suffering] at the moment,” he says.
But the producers of the reality show, in which wealthy individuals go undercover in impoverished communities and end up giving away thousands of dollars to deserving organizations, persisted.
Fitzpatrick eventually signed on to spend eight days in the Muirhevnamor housing estate in Dundalk, Co. Louth, one of Ireland’s most disadvantaged communities.
He was given a typical low income apartment to live in, about $200 in cash to live on (a major portion of which went on cleaning supplies and mouse traps), and, one of the most difficult adjustments for the perpetually connected businessman, he agreed to hand over his Blackberry.
Pretending to film a documentary on the recession, Fitzpatrick’s task was to research and visit individuals working to uplift the community through service and volunteer programs. The camera follows him as he spends his days talking with Dundalk residents and looking in on various community programs. By the end of the week, he has to decide which programs he will personally donate money to, and reveal his true identity.
According to a recent survey, unemployment in Muirhevnamor, is four times the national average, and the community is concerned about a growing drug problem that puts youth at risk. One of Fitzpatrick’s first stops is the Craobh Rua Community House, an after school program run by Jacinta Grimes and Caroline Flanagan. In this safe environment at-risk children can play, get homework help, and learn the risks of drug use and gang violence.
Fitzpatrick sings the praises of Jacinta and Caroline throughout the show, calling them “the heart and soul of the house…I walk in the door and I feel like it’s home. I feel what the kids feel.”
Fitzpatrick also visits O’Hanlon Park Boxing & Fitness Club, run by local boxing champion Paul Taaffe and other local volunteers, and Cuidigh Linn, which provides a variety of services to lonely and homebound elderly in the community for little or no fee.
What strikes one again and again in watching the show (American audiences can watch it on YouTube) is the amazing fortitude shown by those individuals involved in fighting to keep the community alive and better the lot of residents, young and old.
They go about their day with humor and commitment, and in the case of Paul, who started O’Hanlon Park Boxing & Fitness in order to promote physical health and mental well-being and to bring young and old community members together, a belief that “the Club doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the community…It’s about getting the whole community to interact.”
Through Cuidigh Linn he meets Tim and Diane, a wheelchair-bound couple living in a two-story house. Tim has not been upstairs in fifteen years, and Diane, who began using a wheelchair five years ago, has no accessible bed – each night, she brings her wheelchair close to Tim’s bed and rests her head on the mattress. But like many people Fitzpatrick met in Dundalk, Tim and Diane are positive in their outlook despite the hardship.
One of the kids Fitzpatrick meets at the after school program is a young boy named Joel Maguire, who first appears shy and guarded. But when he launches into singing “Billionaire,” a song that boasts, “Every time I close my eyes, I see my name in shining lights,” he loses all his inhibitions and his voice soars. Fitzpatrick spends time with Joel and learns of his ambition to be a famous singer and his desire to help support his mother.
So, it will not spoil the show for those of you who want to watch it, to learn that in addition to making a large donation to the Muirhevnamor youth community center, Fitzpatrick also buys Joel singing lessons to put him on track towards achieving his dream.
In addition to €20,000 he gives towards expanding the youth center, we learn that Fitzpatrick also gives a donation of €2,000 to the co-ed youth boxing club, and €15,000 to Cuidigh Linn, the senior citizen organization.
Fitzpatrick was so struck by the predicament of Tim and Diane, the couple he met through Cuidigh Linn, that after the show ended, he stayed in touch and helped lobby the local government to secure a wheelchair-accessible house just across the street. They plan to move in this March or April.
He keeps in touch with Jacinta and Caroline too, and is actively involved in making sure they have the resources to build a new addition to the community center so that more children can attend.
In fact, Fitzpatrick has kept in touch with nearly everyone he met during the filming – and many whom he didn’t have a chance to meet now recognize him and welcome him into the neighborhood. “I think about those eight days and there was a calmness within me,” he tells Irish America. “Even though I was in these difficult situations, I felt different. Some places in Ireland, like the area of Dundalk where we filmed, never experienced the Celtic Tiger. But the beautiful thing is they’re still happy, they never complain. You think we have problems – we have no problems.”
It was, Fitzpatrick admits, a significant change for someone who has often described himself in interviews as “married” to his work to take time out to do the show. “I hadn’t turned off my Blackberry in 20 years,” he says of his life leading up to his week of filming. In addition to being president and CEO of The Fitzpatrick Hotel Group, North America, which includes two hotels in New York City, he is in his second term as chairman of the New York Hotel Association. He is also an American Ireland Fund Board Director.
Yet despite his incredibly busy schedule he has always made time for charitable causes, especially in Ireland. The Eithne and Paddy Fitzpatrick Memorial Fund, which he created 18 years ago in memory of his parents, has raised over $1.4 million for Irish organizations.
“When my mother passed away, I was adamant that she would not be forgotten. My father had done so well in Ireland but he would’ve never been as successful without my mother. So that’s why I first set up the foundation. I really didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I got involved with The American Ireland Fund and they guided me,” Fitzpatrick says.
Two of the main projects he’s become involved with are the Corrymeala Centre and Barrettstown. Corrymeala Centre is dedicated to fostering peaceful dialogue in Northern Irish communities by bringing families together and Barrettstown provides comfort to children with cancer and other serious illnesses. Fitzpatrick has also recently supported Peace Players International, another organization devoted to reconciliation in Northern Ireland by teaching basketball to children from different communities.
In addition to this lengthy list of commitments, Fitzpatrick’s stint on Secret Millionaire was unique because the Eithne and Paddy Fitzpatrick Memorial Fund was able to match his contributions to the Dundalk community organizations, partly through funds raised at his annual golf tournament.
He said, “I was just lucky enough that when I had my golf tournament in May, I stood up and said, ‘I’ve just done something fantastic but I can’t tell you about it. [He kept the show a secret until it aired last September.] But we’re going to raise some money for it here, and it’s about kids.’” The response was overwhelmingly positive, and though they did not know who the recipients would be until recently, friends and donors eagerly contributed to the cause.
“When you get involved and you can see something happening with what you put in, it’s very fulfilling,” he says. “But really the charity work is made possible by my donors and my team. All my employees give up their free time. The golf tournament is in May, we start [organizing] in November. My salespeople, my bartenders, my restaurant people, my housekeepers… they all get involved and they’re on the committee.”
Since Secret Millionaire was filmed in March 2011, Fitzpatrick has been back to Dundalk every time he’s been back to Ireland. “Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re so good going to Dundalk’ – but no, I get a kick out of it.”
In addition to keeping in touch with the community organizations, he’s kept in touch with Joel. “I got him two tickets for Rihanna in concert. That was in September, so I brought himself and his mother up and they stayed at my sister’s hotel in Dublin.”
Thinking back to the concert he says, “665,000 people watched Secret Millionaire in Ireland. I’m walking out of the car park [with Joel] and young girls recognize me, and I said, ‘Hold on, girls, look who’s with me.’ And they went wild, he was like a rock star to them. He’s brilliant.”
Fitzpatrick insists that the financial contributions he made on Secret Millionaire would mean nothing without the community members who give so much of their time. “I think the credit has to go to the people [like] Jacinta and Caroline. They’re the ones who are there every day. They’re the ones who should get the credit for it all.”
Fitzpatrick remains dedicated to providing real solutions to the organizations and people he helps through the Eithne and Paddy Fitzpatrick Memorial Fund.
“I always try to show every year at my golf tournament what the money was spent on. At least 50 percent of the money has to go into bricks and mortar.” And of course, his eye remains on the future of the Dundalk community.
“If I just did it for the show, then it’s just a TV show. There’s a lot more work to be done, and I’ve met great friends…so it’s been a hell of an experience.”
In the final moments of Secret Millionaire, Fitzpatrick reflects on his time in Dundalk. “There’s something about this week I can’t really explain … It was great. I have to say, looking back on it now, it was definitely worth my doing. It made me look a little bit more at myself.”
Click HERE to watch John Fitzpatrick on Secret Millionaire.