- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

Meet Michael Guillen: scientist, author, Emmy winner and loving husband and father. He also is a child of God who doesn’t talk about coincidences. For him, prayer, divine intervention and the golden rule are the simple facts of life, situated along the straight and narrow, that led him to his newest roles as philanthropist and film producer.

Mr. Guillen says he is blessed. In one breath he talks about his beginnings in the Mexican barrios of East Los Angeles and his rearing by a father who was a Pentecostal minister, like his grandfather. Mr. Guillen’s was a bootstrap upbringing - “not a handout but a hand up,” he said.

In his next breath, Mr. Guillen sings the praises of Dr. John M. Templeton Jr., president of the Templeton Foundation; Zach Bonner, 11-year-old founder of the Little Red Wagon Foundation; children and churches in his Southern California neighborhood; and the countless Americans who help other Americans, whether they are wealthy or not.

You need not be rich and famous to be a philanthropist, he said, adding that a construction worker can give an hour a day helping someone learn English. “Everyone can’t be a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt or Bill Gates,” he said.


For Mr. Guillen, the road out of East L.A. led to UCLA, Cornell University and a successful career. A scientist by training who taught at Harvard and calls himself a “problem solver,” he said there is nothing scientific about his current job as president and chief executive officer of the Philanthropy Project. This job entails collaborating with the Templeton Foundation, AOL and “bighearted people” to “popularize philanthropy,” he said.

The mission of the Philanthropy Project includes using multimedia presentations to promote charity work. (See news.aol.com/philanthropy.) One project is a film about Zach and his From My House to the White House walking journey to raise America’s psyche regarding youth homelessness. Zach’s walk is happening in three segments - from his home in Tampa to Tallahassee, Fla.; from Tallahassee to Atlanta; and from Atlanta to Washington.

Mr. Guillen plans to fly to Washington July 5 with his wife, Laurel, and their son so he can walk into the nation’s capital with Zach.

Q: We hear about homelessness everyday, whether it’s because a home or apartment building burns down and displaces people or because of war or civil strife around the globe. Are Americans keenly aware of homeless youth?

A: I have to credit Zach. It’s hard to face up to the problem of homelessness in America because we can wrap our minds around the homeless in other jarring situations. Here, 1.3 million people want to know where they are going to sleep tonight. How did this come about? The government has thrown billions at the problem. What can we do to solve this problem? Throwing money is not going to fix the problem. So the question becomes, what can we do? Each of us has to take interest. Each of us has to care. Caring for one another is key to solving the problem. Anyone can be a philanthropist.

Q: Where were you and what were you doing when you first heard about Zach?

A: I took on the project in the fall of 2006 and then started writing down my vision. That took about a year. In January 2007, I hired a story editor because I knew that in the world of film and television, story is king. We looked for a true story about Americans helping Americans. By last summer, we had no fewer than 6,000 stories. I hired three more story writers. We found 500 would make good short stories on the Web and needed to pick one to make a full-length motion picture. We whittled down to 50, then 25, and 25 to 12 finalists. Lo and behold, Zach Bonner and the Little Red Wagon were the top pick.

I remember sitting in my office when the team first mentioned Zach, and I thought to myself, “This is going to be our story, our film.” Zach embodies philanthropy.

Q: What was the first meeting like?

A: I flew down in August of last year, and we met at an Outback restaurant. Zach was nervous, and he prayed before the meal. Then we started chatting. Zach said he derived joy from helping others, and when Zach learned his story would be told, he hung his head and started crying. He said, “But I’m so small.” I told him he shines every bit as bright as a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt or Bill Gates.

Q: You write and speak about the spiritual quotient. How is America’s spiritual quotient?

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