Real-Life Heroes

Our business offers up an enormous and vital springboard for giving something back.

Think about it: friendships, connections, accomplishments, energy, resources, passion, a world view, accumulated creativity, compassion, the ability to see ourselves in others, to see beyond ourselves, the blessings that can come from earned assets.

Most of us don’t think of these things this way. We should, but we don’t. This is about a couple of people who decided they wanted to do something good. Really good.

If you look for them, you can find some very generous and heroic people in our business. But you have to look, because, unlike most of us self-promoting advertising selves, they do not blow their own horns. They are individuals who have discovered the genuine gratification that can come from thinking beyond the box—the big one called advertising—and sharing the substantial human wealth available from this industry with others less fortunate than us.

It’s late August 1992, and Jay Chiat gets a phone call from his friend Bonnie Lunt, already a force in the ad industry through her recruiting business. Bonnie is standing in the middle of a muddy field in Florida City, Fla., describing the incomprehensible destruction around her in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. What she sees beyond the devastating collateral damage are thousands of people in need. Florida City, a small town at the end of the only road through Everglades Park, is the southern most city in the U.S. not on an island. It’s built on a coral reef, which is now carving ribbons into the feet of most of its barefoot and barely clothed inhabitants.

Bonnie is one of some 50 strangers who arrive at the same spot, uninvited, on the heels of Andrew, called by a then unfamiliar force that says, simply, go, do, something. So she does go, and now she’s on the phone telling Jay, “We’ve got to do something for these people. They don’t even have shoes.”

Thirty-six hours later, an 18-wheeler rolls up to this unforgiving quagmire. It says Reebok on its sides, and a driver jumps down and says, “Anybody seen Bonnie?”

Inside are 17,000 pairs of Reebok shoes. A couple days later, Reebok, a Chiat/Day client, sends down a team of employees to dig in and help these people dig out. All because Bonnie Lunt decides she has to do something, and Jay Chiat answers her call.

“It was then,” says Bonnie today, “that I believed I could do anything.”

And then there’s Ross Ellis. Through 15 years in agency and media advertising work, in otherwise over-demanding and, for her, unsatisfying production, traffic, event coordination and PR assignments, Ross was learning how to be incredibly resourceful. Ross, like Bonnie, is a woman who believes anything is possible—and she, too, has turned her industry experience and access to resources into something extraordinary. Ten years ago, she met an irresistible force in the form of a 17-year-old woman, and it changed her life.

Like countless times before, Ross was prepping a model for a photo shoot. But this time she was doing some off-hours volunteer work for the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Center, and they had granted a “Dream Come True” wish to a teenager suffering from congenital heart failure. This child always wanted to be a model, a wish that appeared painfully impossible given her illness. Not to Ross. “Can do!” she says, and she leans on her connections at Cosmo Girl. The very next day, they send a crew to the hospital—reporter, photographer, lighting, makeup. And this terminally ill, young woman from Staten Island lives just long enough to see her modeling debut and story published in Cosmo Girl.

On the heels of a business that looks glamorous on the outside, here was a child whose smile, in the face of her fate, demonstrated an inner beauty to Ross, and it moved Ross to ultimately devote her life to an issue that had gnawed at her for years: breaking the cycle of violence against children.

Ross Ellis has no concept of the word “no,” except for one time: she said “no” a decade ago and left our business to found an organization that has made an enormous difference in thousands of children’s lives: Love Our Children USA ( (Full disclosure: I joined the board of LOC in April.) Since 1999, Love Our Children has worked through public and parental education, child advocacy, referrals and prevention, and in areas that might otherwise go untended: the kids of Katrina, for example. This recent tragedy continues to be highly visible, complicated by frustrating, politicized governmental aid, or lack thereof. And connecting this devastation to the greatly increased potential for child abuse is not going to occur to many—except Ross, who points out that 500,000 children were severely affected by Katrina’s aftermath. To date she’s raised hard-gained dollars to clothe displaced children, provide them with the supplies they need to go back to school, or to a new one, arrange for housing and even help place a young brother and sister who lost their mother to domestic violence.

Through her media and advertising connections, she’s also engaged entertainers and celebrities to further her cause, including Tom Bergeron, Melissa Etheridge and others.

“Nothing is hopeless,” Ross says, including child abuse, which she says is “a topic, like AIDS and breast cancer before it, that many people are uncomfortable even acknowledging.” Today, LOC fields more than 3,000 phone calls annually, provides endless help and info through their Web site and is active with some 200 families at any given time.

Bonnie Lunt remains an influential industry recruiter who continues to place some very visible, high-level people in expensive ad jobs. “I connect dots,” she says, “one person at a time.” Her first dots outside the business were Florida City and Jay Chiat, and she founded People Helping People ( the next year, after she discovered that her success from our business enabled her to give something back, something she felt compelled to do, and so she does. Since then People Helping People has provided relief and funds for countless people in need in the U.S., Kenya, Ecuador and elsewhere.

“I have a dream,” the letter says. “I want to become a doctor and heal the children in Azama, especially the poorest.”

The writer is 11-year-old Jefferson Perugachi. No doubt, he is among the poorest there himself. He doesn’t say that, but I know he is because the few dollars I sent down there will allow him to attend secondary school for a whole year and furnish him with enough food, books and supplies that he’ll have a chance to learn, and someday maybe even become a doctor.

Azama is a tiny village in the northern Andes outside Octavala, Ecuador, at the end of a long dirt road off the Pan American Highway, elevation 11,000 feet. Bonnie travels to Octavala and Azama four or five times each year and stays there in the village, tending to her children, letting each one know that there’s a lot of people beyond their imagination and reach that care for them. Several other ad people have pitched in with Bonnie over the years and have made a huge difference in the lives of Azama’s 3,000 some inhabitants: a primary school was built, and now a teaching staff of four serves 75 primary students and 45 pre-schoolers. Jefferson is one of them. A medical clinic is tended by two doctors three days a week, and medical records are being established for the first time for the seven communities that comprise Azama. And now a dental clinic, too. Their hopes include a water purification system and an expansion of the school.

A recent visit to Bonnie’s office opened up this world to me. It’s strewn with contributions on their way to Azama—including miscellaneous toiletries from some of the world’s great hotels. “I tell all my friends to clean out their hotel bathrooms when they travel,” she says, twinkle in her eye, “and send everything to me for my kids!” Her walls are covered with portraits of gorgeous children. Beautiful bronze skin and shiny black hair that come from their Incan Quichuan heritage, and gleaming eyes that shine back at you from a thousand years ago and from yesterday with a combination of hope, determination and a kind of serenity that must come from their history, and now from the knowledge that somebody beyond these jungles has taken note of their needs and hopes. Bonnie took the pictures herself. She is their Madrina, their godmother. No wonder they look so loved.

These of course are wonderful and dramatic examples of the good works that can come from the bounty this business bestows on us.

But I’m not suggesting we all give up the ad business and go off and join the Peace Corps or something—although Jane Newman, Madrina Supremo of our industry’s account planning discipline, did—figuratively speaking. She left a lucrative and highly visible ad career to devote her entire self to the oppressed in Africa, and now she walks the dirt roads of Kenya, building schools and campaigning against the brutish tribal practice of circumcising young women. Genuinely risky business. Heroic.

I’m just saying we’re among the privileged few with the talent and the resources to give something back, in some way. There’s a lot we can do, as some extraordinary ordinary people continue to prove.

Bonnie Lunt says ad people are incredibly generous. Many of them have supported her efforts. That’s something we can all take inspiration from—and then, perhaps, gain the great satisfaction of giving something back ourselves.