Show is heaven-sent for volunteer

August 21, 2005|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

John Paul DeJoria, Bobbi Coffman was in a grocery checkout line last week when confetti and balloons suddenly fell around her, and the cashier announced that she was the store's millionth customer.

Her prize was a free shopping spree. But Coffman, a 47-year-old single mother from Glen Burnie, refused to get any items for herself. Instead, she loaded her cart with bread, lunchmeat and other groceries for her charity to feed the homeless.

What Coffman did not know was that the whole thing was staged. The cashier and customers were actors for a new reality television show on the Lifetime network.

During three days of such acts, Coffman was the oblivious star of Earth Angels, a pilot show that surprised her yesterday with a new office and a kitchen for her charity, Happy Helpers for the Homeless.

"I don't even know if I'm here right now!" Coffman told more than 150 friends and colleagues who had gathered outside the office complex on Caton Center Drive in Halethorpe.

As the crowd chanted "Bobbi! Bobbi!" the Bowie State University band played, and cameras zoomed in on Coffman, who wiped away tears as she hugged her 23-year-old daughter, Amber.

Inspired by an elementary-school research project on Mother Theresa, Amber was 10 when she told her mother she wanted to start a charity.

The mother and daughter started by making sandwiches in their apartment on Saturdays, and then distributing them to hundreds of homeless people in Glen Burnie and Baltimore.

Now, more than 60 volunteers show up at Bobbi Coffman's apartment every Saturday and Sunday, and on holidays, to distribute food and toiletries to the homeless.

Producers of Earth Angel said they searched charities nationwide and chose Coffman from among hundreds of candidates.

They said they wanted to spotlight a Good Samaritan who had an interesting story. Coffman, who lost her mother and father to illness when she was young, spent 15 years as a teacher in the Army and often worked a second job to raise her daughter. Now she works as a teaching assistant at Meade High School in Anne Arundel County and works part time for the Miss USA Pageant.

"She's exactly what you would want: emotional, considerate, funny, normal," said Mark Wolper, Earth Angels' executive producer.

He said the pilot likely would not air for several months, if at all.

For Coffman's setup, producers used celebrities, including John Paul DeJoria, who once was homeless and is co-founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems hair products, and Maryum "May May" Ali, the daughter of Muhammad Ali.

"I was blown away" by her story, said DeJoria, who gave Coffman a free makeover. He said he grew up in a foster home, and he and his son used to feed homeless people in Los Angeles. "Always, we kept on giving ... and that's what she's doing."

For the past several days, a camera crew followed Coffman, who was told they were filming for a Canadian television show on volunteerism.

Then, yesterday, a "county inspector" (Ali) showed up at her home and said Coffman had to shut down her charity until she got a proper food license. On her way to get the license, Coffman was pulled over by an actor posing as a police officer.

As Coffman cried in frustration - it was a rental car, after all - the officer walked her around the corner to a new office and kitchen, where show producers identified themselves. Equipped with a stainless steel refrigerator, freezer and sink, the large space inside a Halethorpe complex was a gift from Lifetime.

"This is just so beautiful, so spacious," Coffman said.

The show also gave Coffman's minivan a new paint job and attached to it a trailer emblazoned with "Happy Helpers for the Homeless."

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