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‘60 Minutes’ exposure gives Opportunity Village a boost

UNLV Football Visits Opportunity Village

UNLV head football coach Bobby Hauck meets with members of Opportunity Village during the team's visit to the Engelstad Family Campus in Las Vegas on April 23. Launch slideshow »

2010 Opportunity Village Magical Forest Tree Lighting

The Opportunity Village Magical Forest tree lighting and gingerbread contest on Nov. 20, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Map of Opportunity Village

Opportunity Village

6050 S Buffalo Dr, Las Vegas

Opportunity Village has seen one misfortune after another.

In July, fire destroyed the nonprofit organization’s popular thrift store on Main Street. In December, its largest fundraiser, the holiday-themed Magical Forest, was rained out, forcing it to close for four days at a loss of $175,000. Finally, less than a month later, six of its vans were vandalized at one of its campus parking lots.

So when Opportunity Village was briefly highlighted in a “60 Minutes” segment about one of its major donors — sports-betting savant Bill Walters — the charity hoped the show would shed light on its cause.

But the group, which helps hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities find jobs, could not have imagined the windfall that would result.

Within days of the 20-minute segment that aired Jan. 16, the charity was inundated with calls and donations from across the country, Associate Executive Director Linda Smith said.

“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Smith said.

Online donations of $50 to $100 started pouring in, some made in honor of Walters, a Las Vegas investor and a multimillion-dollar donor to Opportunity Village. (Walters bets tens of millions of dollars on professional football and basketball games each year, relying on a network of anonymous betting partners and insiders.)

The organization received about $65,000 as a result of the “60 Minutes” piece, over and above typical donations for the month after the segment aired.

One viewer — former MGM President Terry Lanni — was so moved by the piece, he donated $50,000 to the charity, Smith added.

Doug Harwood, a real estate agent near San Diego, was hoping to start an organization to help jobless in Southern California when he watched the “60 Minutes” segment.

“I was so intrigued,” Harwood said. “It was so wonderful to see people had jobs there. It was a revelation to me … I know it sounds kind of corny, but it just had so much more heart in it.”

The show changed his focus entirely, he said. In late January, he toured Opportunity Village and met with Executive Director Ed Guthrie to try to find ways to start a similar organization.

“I wanted to see firsthand what they’re doing and how they’re doing it,” he said, calling the visit “taxing, but invigorating.”

Although not immune to declining contributions seen by charities across the country, Opportunity Village has weathered the recession better than others by being nearly 80 percent self-sufficient, Smith said.

The organization does the usual fundraising — events such as the Santa Run and Magical Forest and donor solicitations. However, Opportunity Village also takes advantage of the employment opportunities it provides its 900 clients, who shred sensitive documents, help with company mailing and bake cookies for Strip hotels.

“We have a model of self-sufficiency,” Smith said. “We can’t sit around waiting for the government to help us out.”

That resonated with Walters.

“There are a lot of great organizations in town, but what was so attractive to me about Opportunity was that they help a group of people who, through no fault of their own, were dealt a bum hand,” he said. “And instead of letting society take care of them, they are part of the American dream. They work, and they earn their own money.”

As a condition of having his sports-betting story aired on CBS, Walters mandated that “60 Minutes” take a look at his favorite charity in Las Vegas.

It’s a gamble that has paid off, Smith said.

“We know we have a story to tell beyond Nevada,” she said. “We have something special in the whole disability movement … people are paying attention.”

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