“I just pretended that the camera people weren’t there,” says Jonas Corona, the 9-year-old CEO of Love in the Mirror, a charity that for the last three years has been providing needy and homeless youth basic necessities such as food, clothing and learning materials. “I was trying to just do my thing and not think about it.”
He’s talking about his experience one day last October filming what he was told was part of a documentary on local charities. But as he found out 24 hours later, those cameras were getting footage for the ABC television series Secret Millionaire, and that volunteer who came with them was Hilary DeCesare, co-founder of Everloop.com — and yes, a millionaire.
That episode of Secret Millionaire, which features three Long Beach charities, airs Sunday night, and ABC is hosting a public screening of the episode at the Gaslamp Restaurant.
Hilary, who reached millionaire status while working at computer giant Oracle in the 1990s, has become increasingly involved in charitable activities since then — although the opportunity to be on Secret Millionaire did not initially appeal to her.
“The whole thought of living in poverty conditions and doing all this was just boring to me,” she admits. “But my co-founder [at Everloop.com] said, ‘This is a really, really great show. And it ties so nicely into what you’re all about.'”
And after watching a few episodes and talking with the production company, Hilary was all in.
“I thought what they were doing was incredible, and I thought this would be a real eye-opening experience for me,” she says. “But it was 10 times more eye-opening than I thought [it would be]. You learn so much about yourself in that week. You meet truly the greatest people you’ve ever been around.”
She met one of “those people” when, after choosing the Long Beach charities she would check out, she showed up at the Corona house.
“This little boy opened the door,” Hilary recounts, “and I said, ‘I’m looking for the person that runs Love in the Mirror.’ And he kind of blushed and said, ‘I do.’ […] His mission in life is to help people and to give them a chance to really look inside themselves and see the beauty in what sometimes is an environment that normally wouldn’t have anything beautiful coming out of it. Jonas and his mother, Renee, really put together a special charity.”
Renee recalls being surprised when Hilary showed up with a camera crew of about 10, but she never put the pieces together.
“For a second I stopped and said [to myself], ‘This is kind of a strange documentary,'” she says. “[…] There were security guards up and down our street. And the cars they were driving were very nice. […] So it occurred to me that something was going on. But, you know, some people have the means to do that. So I thought about it, but I just let it go.”
Hilary spent one day working with Jonas and the Love in the Mirror crew, and she can’t say enough about her experience. She recalls going with Jonas to Lincoln Park to pass out the hundred or so peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches they had made and seeing him approach a homeless woman who clearly had not bathed in for quite a while, pushing all of her possessions in a shopping cart. He gave her a sandwich and shook her hand despite yellowed fingernails that were falling off. Hillary followed suit, and the woman started to cry, explaining to Hilary, “‘It brings tears to my eyes that this little boy is willing to reach out to us, when so many others look the other way.’ […] Everything about it touched me. This little boy could make 50 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and go to a homeless park and have the confidence to walk up to these people that haven’t showered and clearly have some rough life experience. And he didn’t care. He shook hands. He made me feel proud to be around him.”
Another experience that sticks out for Hilary was a visit to a preschool for homeless kids to deliver stuffed animals.
“You walk into this group of children that are just so hungry for love and so hungry to be close to somebody who’s generally there just to care about them,” Hilary says. “Many of them hadn’t bathed in a while; many of them had terrible colds and they had boogers all over their faces. And initially [for me] it would have been like, ‘I don’t want to go in there. I’m going to get sick. I don’t want to do that.’ And it was just so great watching Jonas just walk into this room and sit down on the floor. And I followed him. And the kids literally attacked us. I mean, they just rolled us over. And the love and the patience and the tolerance [Jonas] showed me, and the compassion that he has for these people, it was truly such a humbling experience for me. […] You realize pretty quickly that the show’s not about you [i.e., the ‘secret millionaire’]. The show is really about the people that you meet and the way that you can highlight them out there to as many people as possible.”
This is not the first time Jonas has been highlighted on television: in April of last year he was profiled on the KTLA show Young Icons.
“This is my second time being on TV,” he says of his upcoming appearance on Secret Millionaire. “The first time [i.e., on Young Icons] I was very nervous [before the show aired]. But when I saw myself on TV, it made me forgetting about everything that happened, and I was like, ‘I’m on TV! Yay!’ — like, excited and stuff. Since this was my second time, I was a little less nervous [during filming].”
He admits, though, that he is “a lot” nervous knowing that this time millions of people will see him. But he likes the attention, because of what it does for Love in the Mirror.
“[The attention] makes me feel good because a lot of people are knowing about me more and, like, my organization will get bigger and bigger […] and I’ll [be able to] help more kids,” he says. “[…] Every time I get an article or be on TV, I get nervous less and less. When I’m older I won’t be nervous.”
Already a bit savvy about the TV trade, Jonas understood on the final day of filming that something was up with the way Hilary was talking to them.
“She was trying to make us cry before she gave us the check,” he says. “And then my mom is like, ‘There’s something going on.’ […] They would try to make us cry by saying emotional things, and then they gave us the check. I didn’t cry. I almost did, but I didn’t. And then at the end, when I thought we were done filming, I went in my room and let it all out. And then they interviewed us and said goodbye.”
Hilary says her experience with Love in the Mirror has led her to want more of a hands-on, concrete experience with charity work than just the abstract realm of check-writing.
“You don’t get that sense of helping another soul when you just write a check,” she says. “If people can actually give their time — and it doesn’t have to be a lot of time; it can be an hour, two hours — how you feel about yourself dramatically changes. You can have had a tough day, you can have had a tough month, a tough year — [then] you go do something that’s not about you [but] it’s about somebody else, it’s amazing how that directly impacts your own state of mind. [… Jonas] has made me much more aware and present in today’s world than I was. […] It’s keeping your eyes wide open, instead of us only wanting to be with people that are very similar to ourselves. Because these people don’t have money or because they have the ability at this point in their lives to save themselves, it doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be saved. I wish everybody could spend some time with that kid. […] He’s like an old soul.”
Check out that little old soul on ABC-TV’s Secret Millionaire on Sunday at 8 p.m. Jonas, Renee, and Hilary will be watching at a fundraiser screening at the Gaslamp Restaurant (6251 Pacific Coast Hwy., LB 90803; 562.596.4718). For more information on Love in the Mirror, find them on Facebook or at loveinthemirror.org.
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