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Spreading the Happyness

Will Smith flick The Pursuit of Happyness was based on the true experiences of Chris Gardner (left). Photograph (Gardner) courtesy of

April 17, 2013

Spreading the Happyness
The real life Chris Gardner shares his rags-to-riches story at a Crisis Ministries fundraiser

written by Stratton Lawrence

Although parts of Chris Gardner’s life story were altered in the 2006 hit film, The Pursuit of Happyness, for dramatic effect (his son, for example, was a toddler when they were homeless on the streets of San Francisco—not five years old), the core of Gardner’s experience depicted by actor Will Smith conveys the truth. Gardner and his son really did sleep on train cars and inside public bathrooms as the determined father worked his way through a trainee program with a brokerage firm.

He eventually earned a full-time job as a stockbroker, and not long after, bought his first Ferrari (from Michael Jordan, no less). Today, he owns an investment firm, and his family needn’t worry about where their next meal will come from. But he still remains humble, frequently donating his time to share his story and improve the plight of the homeless in America. This Thursday, at the invitation of Frank and Kelly Abagnale (Frank’s own life was portrayed in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can), he’ll speak at Crisis Ministries’ April 18 dinner and live auction, Food * Shelter * Hope, at The Riviera at Charleston Place.

Gardner spoke to Charleston magazine last week from his office in Chicago:

CM: Do you ever meet people who have been inspired by your example to turn their lives around?
I’m on the road 200 days a year, so I talk to a lot of folks. Just yesterday, I was at the airport talking to a United Airlines employee who figured out who I was and said, “Every time I’m having a bad day, I think about you and the position you were in and what you’ve gone through, and I say to myself, ‘It’ll be okay.’” It happens every day. It’s a blessing.

CM: Now that you have money, you’ve said that it’s the least important aspect of wealth. That’s got to be a tough thing to grasp when you literally have nothing. Did you believe that when you were homeless?
Man, when you finally get all your toys, you’ve got no time, and that teaches you that time is the biggest asset. You can make and lose money, but you cannot make time.

CM: Even when you were broke with nowhere to go, you never seemed to lose your drive to pursue a better life. How did you accomplish that?
I knew where I wanted to go. The first thing I had to do was change my situation. Bathing my son in a train station bathroom, looking into the mirror, I had to ask myself the brutal question of, ‘How did I get here?’ The answer was even more brutal: ‘I drove here. I had something to do with it.’ You can't change anything until you own up to it.

CM: Do you think your story could happen just as easily today as it did 30 years ago?
There are a lot of similarities between today’s world and the early ’80s, from the recession to unemployment, and safety net and education programs are the first ones threatened by budget cuts. We have a new class of homeless people today—the white-collar homeless—who worked hard and played by the rules. Then consider that 30 percent of the adult male homeless population in the country are veterans. We talk about supporting our troops, but what about when they come home?

CM: So what can people in Charleston do to help?
I’m such a fan of food banks and shelters because when you contribute, the support you give is literally going to feed somebody’s family that night. When you think about helping the homeless, don’t automatically say, ‘Those people are lazy’ or ‘They got involved with drugs.’ What did our veterans do to deserve this? What did the babies of homeless parents do to deserve it? I meet homeless people every day who are working hard to try to help themselves and their families. When those people can eat tonight because of a place like Crisis Ministries, that’s a powerful message.

Food * Shelter * Hope: Thursday, April 18, 7 p.m. The Riviera at Charleston Place, 227 King St. $150. (843) 737-8384,

To learn about families facing homelessness right here in Charleston, read our February 2013 feature, “Hope, without a Home,” here.

For more events coming up around town, click here.

Thu, 04/18/2013