Alan Helfman, “Mr. Philanthropy”
The Helfman River Oaks Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram dealership at Westpark and Kirby is always busy; and more often than not, you can find Alan Helfman and his son there working deals for people and doing what they can for the community that surrounds and supports them. A smiling energetic Alan Helfman greets me and the IF team and offers each of us a water and a new mask. We were immediately thankful seeing that it is the coveted KN95 type that for those of us working in the public have become a true necessity. Leaning up against a beautiful car on the showroom floor, all of us masked and standing 6 feet apart, we begin our conversation.
Alan Helfman: At the beginning of this pandemic, I saw the need; so I acquired the masks and I gave 7 out of 8 constable departments 400 masks, KN95s. Nobody even knew what was going on yet, and I was there delivering masks, and people were picking them up here from the HPD Union and HFD. I’d do 1000 to 2000 masks a day. I just thought it was my responsibility; somebody had to step up and do it. The city wasn’t doing it.
HeidiPP: Has philanthropy and fundraising for local causes always been a part of your passion in life, even as a young man in college?
Alan Helfman: I always knew I’d be a little fortunate. That’s why I hooked up with Provost. I knew I could permeate some major stuff to all ethnicities and the underprivileged and make their lives a lot better. From Reverend Manson Johnson of Holman St., a dear friend, or pastor Freeman who worked with Lee and I, he helped our vernacular to be somewhat lucid and fluid. I have met and worked with a lot of great people. Some have said I’m the best kept secret because I am not like some other promoters out there. I’m not that flashy; we just quietly go in there and take care of the fundraiser and get on to the next one. I’ve got two HPD fundraisers coming up for officer Madrid who has cancer on July 31st and one August 28th. Both will be at the HPD Union Hall 1602 Sage St. at lunch time. I’m going to do the one for the two officers whose helicopter crashed. Then I’m going to do one for Dr. Mark Wallace at Texas Children’s for Medicine without Borders; one will be in the evening September 17th at the Westin. The information will be online.
Heidi PP: How has the pandemic affected your fundraising efforts?
Alan Helfman: It has slowed up a bit with the pandemic and all. Mrs. Provost and I were doing probably two to three fundraisers a month for 30 years. One of the good things was Houston Community College came and said, “Hey, we want to honor you.” I said, “When do you want to do that?” They said, “May 2nd.” This was back in December. They said, “We want to make you the eagle at the big gala at the Hilton Americas.” I said, “Ok if you do that, I’m going to raise you between a million and a million two.” They canceled the May 2nd deal, and they moved it to November 14th. I just got word from them that the HCC foundation has canceled it completely. I said how much have we raised right now, Karen? And she said you are right at $800,000; and you know what the blessing is? All these scholarships are going to the kids because there are no expenses if we don’t do an event. So in the end, it may be the most profitable fundraiser they’ve had. So we hire some of the HCC students, because they have talent; and this is a place they can get their start.
HeidiPP: You are very passionate about education. What did you study?
Alan Helfman: Well, I studied business at the University of Texas, but everyone thinks I am a TSU graduate, because I am on their board; but I am on about six to eight boards right now. Memorial Hermann Board, UTMB Galveston, Jennie Sealy Hospital- surgery day room three, Houston Police Department Foundation, Houston Fire Department Foundation, Seven Acres Geriatirics Center. When the Jewish Community Center had all their cars destroyed, I took whatever the insurance gave them which was about half the value of the three cars they purchased; and I had already given them a few cars. They give rides to elderly members that need transportation to doctors’ appointments. It’s a great program and I wanted to keep it going. At Emery High School, we put the Helfman football field up. Every private school in the city plays football and soccer there. When my dad passed, we thought that would be a good memorial for him and called it The Helfman Field at Caress Stadium Emery Weiner School. The project consisted of a new press box and storage facility for the Emery Weiner School in Houston, Texas. The 9,000 SF building includes restrooms, locker rooms, a weight room and a concessions stand on the first level, with a film deck, a press box and a mechanical mezzanine on the second level. Construction consisted of a steel-framed superstructure, a concrete slab-on-grade ground floor and belled pier foundations. HISD approached me to give cars to students who placed out; I wanted all of the kids to get something, so we got some items, some computers, some footballs, about 70 in all, to give away as well as the car. The girl who won the car didn’t even have a driver’s license. She came to school via metro and yet she teaches at HISD now. They asked me the next year, and we did it again. The kid that won it that year was on his bike.
HeidiPP: You have survived a lot of crises in Houston. Do you have any advice for business owners and people in Houston as we get ready to rebuild and come back from this year’s lockdowns?
Alan Helfman: I think we are in a wonderful city in a great state, a great country. I think truthfully, if you look around the country, Houston is probably the best. I see a lot of people moving here, and I understand why. It’s very ethnically diversified. Everything that you could want from food to worship, to stadiums, to good football, baseball, basketball, the arts, there’s all those things. It’s good living conditions. You aren’t living on top of one another; you are not riding a rail with thousands of people.
HeidiPP: Do you think we are in a good position to bounce back from this economic crisis? What’s your advice to business owners today?
Alan Helfman: I think we are resilient and I think it’s not easy but we can make it through this. I think if you take care of people right, you treat them good. Probably the public companies are going to have the most problems, the ones that are owned by stockholders, because you have to be a little bit more aware of what is happening; because through this deal, I’ve pre bought deals at half a dozen restaurants to make sure they are still there a year from now when I want to go get my meal there. I also help when possible, because there’s nobody for people to lean on. There’s not that many of us around. Just because you see a name on a dealership doesn’t mean that person is still around.
You see 30 and 40 years ago, I knew it was important to help all kinds of people, because not everybody had the same opportunities that I had; and I always thought that I didn’t want people to say that I only helped my own kind or my own religion. I knew it was important to help everyone equally. This is something I have been doing every day for over 30 years. During Hurricane Harvey, I was giving away signatures of JJ Watt and stuff, because they needed to smile. Their house was destroyed; but guess what they had going up on their wall, a gorgeous picture of Altuve that might be worth a lot of money someday. So I always liked sports memorabilia, and it creates a lot of energy and fundraising dollars.
30 years ago I met Mrs. Georgia Provost. I was doing a scholarship for A. B. Chambers who was a constable here. He wanted to put two people through college and called me. So I said, “I’ll help you.” I heard her talking behind me at the fundraiser. I said I need to permeate some cash into 3rd Ward, 4th Ward and 5th Ward and I need someone to do a fundraiser each month.” And she said, “I know everyone.” I said, “Ok, your payments won’t go up on your Grand Cherokee, and I’ll make sure you have a new one in the driveway almost every year.” That’s been facilitated for close to 30 years. She helps me. We’ve probably done 80 fundraisers for Texas Southern, and we have done KTSU twice a year for over 30 years now. She attends all the events in a brand new Grand Cherokee. We’ve run for politics three times. When I was Mayor Lee Brown’s right hand guy, he put me as one of the people on the committee to help with the Compaq Center Lakewood Church Project; and I also helped do Sky Bridge at MD Anderson which was a major project; Mayor Lee Brown helped me a lot with that as well as Dr. David Calendar. Many times I’ll be working on a car deal or something, and I try to make dreams happen for people. I get pretty creative in what I need to do to make sure you get the opportunity to drive away in a car. I’m able to do that because I have the liquidity to do that.
We’ve raised $900,000 for the Houston Fire Department. I’ve done close to 80 fundraisers at TSU with Mrs. Provost. This year I gave two cars to the fire department, I gave HPD a van for their Explorers program, Rick Noriega the state rep over at the Ronald McDonald House told me his eight year-old van was broken down, so I gave him a Pacifica and then I gave one to Rice University. I have given away five cars this year. I normally do three a year. I’m the only dealership in the city that does that on a regular basis. I try to give $15,000 in auction items. Usually I am a big proponent to Texas Southern, Houston Baptist, and Rice Universities. Seven Acres Geriatrics Center was destroyed during the hurricane 400 people had to be moved out to other centers. They said “This year we want to honor you, Alan”, and I said “How much do you need me to raise for you?” They said “$800,000.” So I went to see the center on Braeswood, and I said “I’ll tell you what I’m going to raise more than what you asked for”. Provost was one the Keynote speakers I had, the president of HPD, the president of the Harris County Mental Health & Mental Retardation, Dr. David Calendar from UTMB was also a speaker. It was an outstanding event, and when I got off the stage that night I had 4.7 million dollars raised, the largest fundraiser for a single night in the city of Houston. So I pat myself on the back for being able to help them during this hurricane and future hurricanes. We’ve done 13 fundraisers for the Mental Health & Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, which is called Harris now, https://www.theharriscenter.org. They had a change of leadership, so I opened my own park in the City of Meadows called Helfman Playland. We astro turfed it, and we put about 10 rides specially equipped for kids with disabilities, and I gave them 10 new wheelchairs and then a little further down the way we put a butterfly trail with stone chairs and tables where families could picnic. I think we are one of the few disability parks probably in Harris County.
We’ve done 102 fundraisers for the Houston police Department. Everytime we go to HPD and do something, I usually hire 12 to 15 ladies to dance with me and be a part of the show. I have my own band, and then we bring sports memorabilia out, and I stand up on stage and auction the items, and we’re dancing, and we’re singing, and I’ll be singing Brick House. It’s a lot of fun, and we’ll do that for about two-and-a-half hours and we’ve raised as little as $25,000 to as much as $150,000. See that trophy right there; that was for Jerry Flores, the officer that fell from the golf cart. We raised $149,000 for him that day. Provost comes to most of it, Provost and I go on KTSU twice a year and do a fundraiser. I’ll bring 50 Mike Tyson signed gloves, 50 Hakeem Olajuwon autographed jerseys, 50 autographed basketballs, etc. to auction and we’ve done that for 30 years.
When Josh Hill was the head of the TSU School of Science and Technology we did his fundraiser for him every year, and we killed it, Provost and I. We did one for the music department also. We honored all the former police chiefs for the City of Houston; we did that at Pastor Kirbyjohn Caldwell’s place. Cynthia Cooper asked us to do a fundraiser for Prairie View and we accomplished that. The list of events the past 30 plus years is long, and the partnership has been more successful than I ever could have imagined when we first met and began working together.
On the second floor of his River Oaks dealership and throughout the dealership, there are humanitarian awards and plaques representing the many philanthropic efforts Mr. Helfman has been a part of over the years; and thankfully, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
“It is going to take a lot more people like Alan Helfman and Mrs. Provost to bring us back from this crisis, but if we all work together and support businesses who invest in our communities, like Alan Helfman, we can build an even stronger and more resilient Houston.”
Heidi PP, IF Magazine Chief Photographer and Global Journalist