Leigh Anne Tuohy came on as strong as her southern accent at the Women’s Philanthropy Choices dinner, held at the Parsippany Hilton on Oct. 24.
Based on Tuohy’s manner that night, Sandra Bullock had toned down by a few notches the woman she portrayed in The Blind Side, the 2009 movie based on the true story of how Tuohy and her husband Sean, both affluent and white, adopted Michael Oher, a homeless African-American teenager who became an All-American football player.
“Now y’all seem like you’re very interesting, educated, well-rounded women,” she said as she took the podium before nearly 500 women. “So don’t ask me stupid questions, okay? Don’t ask me, ‘Has this movie changed your life?”… Yes, this movie has changed my life! If Sandra Bullock plays you in a movie and she wins an Oscar and she adopts an African-American baby, and her husband goes off the deep end, it changes your life!”
The event was the first Choices dinner held under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, formed with the merger of United Jewish Communities of Metrowest NJ and the Jewish Federation of Central NJ.
Tuohy spent the better part of her talk focused not on the movie, but on how she cultivates an attitude of giving in her family, which also happens to be the subject of In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving, by Tuohy and her husband, Sean, published in 2011.
She describes making sure there are dollar bills in the consoles in each of her children’s cars.
“I tell them, ‘If you pull up to someone and if they have a homeless sign, or [a sign that says] ‘Will work for this,’ you pop that console and you given them a couple of dollars. Because we really believe that of those to whom much is given much is required.”
Tuohy also discussed the country club friends — some depicted in the movie — who were unable to appreciate her strong Christian faith and her motivations in helping Oher. “It’s going on three years, and to this day, I still have friends come up to me and go, ‘That wasn’t me in the scene in the movie, was it?’ I don’t know, was it? If you have to ask me that, that’s an issue,” she said.
Change a life
An audience member picked up on that theme during the question and answer period.
“How were you able to bring your country club friends around to your philosophy, and could you please share any recommendations?” the woman asked.
Tuohy said it took a long time for her friends to come around, and that she did a lot of explaining.
“Those kids have not slept in the same beds as your kids every night,” she told them. “They need a lot. I turn to my friends and tell them they can afford it. And sometimes I guilt-trip them. And I tell them it’s our responsibility to make a difference.”
And she acknowledged that yes, she took a risk.
“We take risks every day in life. It’s what we choose to take a risk on. People say, ‘But you took this big black guy into your house, and he’s the same age as your daughter, and didn’t you think, and, and….’ And I say, ‘Shame on you for thinking that. Why did you think that?’
“You know, and of course, I’m thinking, ‘You worry about your life. ’Cause the way I’m looking at it, it needs a lot of improvement. Why you’re so worried about mine, I don’t know. Get yours fixed, and then you can worry about mine,” she said.
Tuohy added, “You know, Michael Oher got off the bus every day in Memphis, and he walked four or five blocks to the high school. And we tell people that if Michael could have fallen down of a massive heart attack on the sidewalk, there isn’t a soul in the world that would have cared. Not one person. Society deemed him 100 percent valueless. The takeaway tonight is this: All we did was offer that young man hope and love and opportunity, and we changed his life.”
Also at Choices, Wendie Ploscowe of North Caldwell and Freida Posnock of Monroe Township were presented with the Kipnis-Wilson/Friedland Award for exemplifying women’s giving.
Talia Sion accepted the award on behalf of Posnock, her grandmother, who was in Israel on a mission to the Greater MetroWest sister city of Arad that evening.