You may be familiar with Chris Gardner from Will Smith's portrayal in the 2006 film, The Pursuit of Happyness, but last night we got the chance to meet the real man behind the story. Gardner, who rose from homelessness to become a multimillionaire, visited Charleston for a Crisis Ministries fundraiser.
We arrived at around 6:45 at The Riviera Theatre, one Charleston’s signature art deco venues. After everyone was all settled, a tuxedoed man walked on stage to introduce the man we had all come to see. “Ladies and gentlemen, the CEO of happiness, Chris Gardner!” he theatrically proclaimed.
Gardner entered and quickly took command on the stage — we couldn’t take our eyes off of him. He began by detailing the events that led to the production of the film. It all started when he reluctantly agreed to do an interview on 20/20. His story spoke to so many people, that he was suddenly approached by every popular talk television show — and then by a Hollywood producer. He was at first unsure about the idea of Will Smith playing him. However, his daughter quickly set him straight, telling him, “If he can play Muhammad Ali, he can play you!”
Though Gardner’s charismatic speech was filled with hilarious asides, overall it gave deeply moving insight about the realities of homelessness. We were shocked to hear Gardner's statistic that 20 percent of homeless people actually have jobs, just no place to go home to. “You never see us because we’re always at work,” he joked. He made it very clear that throughout his struggles, his son was always his first priority, which kept him from giving up. At a moment where he thought he had lost all hope, his two-year-old spoke up and said, “You’re a good papa!” It was these little reminders that kept him on the road to success. He felt his purpose in life was to stop the trend of fathers not being there for there for their children; his remarks nearly brought us to tears.
The speech concluded with a stunning announcement: Gardner proclaimed that he would donate $10,000 to Crisis Ministries. As everyone cheered, the curtains behind the stage opened to display a room equipped with two buffets and bars for the guests’ enjoyment. The rest of the night was one big party filled with generosity. After guests had gotten a chance to indulge themselves, the live auction commenced, in hopes to raise money for Crisis Ministries' new building project.
We spoke with board member Aaron Brewer, who informed us that they had already raised $6 million of the $7 million needed to complete the project. Last night certainly put a dent in that last million — guests were more than willing to help out after Gardner’s moving words. Notably, another man portrayed in a popular film, Frank Abagnale of Catch Me if You Can, gave another $10,000.