Leigh Anne Tuohy, the woman behind 'The Blind Side,' Speaks in El Paso today

April 28th, 2011

El Paso Times
Leigh Anne Tuohy, the woman behind ‘The Blind Side,’ in El Paso today

By Doug Pullen \ El Paso Times
Posted: 04/28/2011 07:18:59 AM MDT
Read Full Article Here

It’s been seven years since the wealthy, white Tuohy family took in a poor, black, gentle giant of a homeless teenager named Michael Oher.

It’s been five years since their story was featured in a best-selling book, two years since it hit the big screen in the movie “The Blind Side,” and one since Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for playing the family’s fiery, shoot-from-the-hip matriarch.

New chapters continue to be written in the ongoing story of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy and their adopted son, the hulking left tackle and former first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens.

These days, Leigh Anne Tuohy divides her time between Oher’s football games; her biological son and daughter; the Memphis Grizzlies games that her husband, Sean, covers for the NBA team’s radio network; a new gig as an interior decorator on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”; running the Making It Happen foundation she started with her husband; and speaking engagements — including one at 11:30 a.m. today for the YWCA 2011 Women’s Luncheon at the El Paso convention center.

“It’s almost comical what we try to squeeze into 24 hours,” Tuohy said from her Memphis home, where she’d just returned from 18 days on the road shooting “Makeover.”

She is hard-pressed to explain just how a simple act of kindness — taking in the teenaged Oher on a cold winter night in 2004 — turned into such a complicated but rewarding life. Before he came along, the Tuohys had their hands full with their kids and careers. She’s been an interior decorator for 28 years; he runs a chain of 82 Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Long John Silver’s restaurants.

“I believe it’s God-driven,” the religious Tuohy said. “You should see our carport. There’s a big sign over it that says, ‘We Believe in Miracles.’ That’s the only way to explain how this story has gotten where it is.”

It started when the Tuohys saw Oher walking down the street on a cold night. He was wearing the same clothes he always wore — and no coat. The family invited him to spend the night on their couch. The nights melted into weeks, then months, before the family adopted him.

The story is familiar to anyone who’s seen the Disney movie, which took some liberties with the truth (Oher was a football player when they met him; Leigh Anne did not march onto the practice field to admonish him). And it’s become a springboard for causes close to the Tuohys’ hearts, including adoption.

They’ve become media sensations and happily use their platform to promote those causes.

“We’re seeing the needle move on foster care adoption, more than it has since probably 1940,” Tuohy said.

She’s blunt about the nation’s priorities. She asserts: “We’re more focused on fricking animal shelters than children in this country.”

Tuohy has taken the adoption ball and run with it, saying that simple changes in society can alleviate numbers like 140,000 kids waiting to be adopted, more than 40,000 in foster care, she said.

“Those can be erased. It’s not cancer. We can choose that problem,” she said.

“We’ve chosen to focus on the wrong things. I think that’s an awful testament in this country. We don’t take care of our own first. There are kids that go hungry and sleep in horrible places. I have a child that went through that. I didn’t see it on the screen or in a book. I lived it.”

Tuohy has become an outspoken advocate because she’s learned from that experience.

“You take a kid in, give them a little hope and basic necessities. It’ll change their lives,” she said. “They haven’t led the same charmed life a lot of us have led.

“We’ve had Michael 10 years, but it’s still, ‘I’ll beat your butt if you don’t do this.’ It’s 10 steps forward and 15 back, but it’s worth it.”

She knows we’re not all rich like her family is. You don’t have to be, she believes. “Start small. Do something. I don’t care if you hand the mailman cookies,” she said. “It’s amazing to me now that people don’t know their mailman’s name. He comes to your house every day. You see him more than your in-laws.”

If anything, the Tuohys hope to help change what she called a “keep to yourself, don’t look around, don’t get involved” mentality. “Our responsibility is to get involved. It’s our responsibility to do something. That’s what we’re out there trying to do — challenge people to do something.”

The Tuohys certainly have been doing a lot of things. They use the money earned from speaking engagements to help fund the Making It Happen Foundation, which was started in response to requests they’d received for advice on helping disadvantaged kids. The foundation is raising money for adoptions and dishes out up to $1,000 for various projects, such as field trips for schools in poor neighborhoods.

The Tuohys wrote a book, “In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving,” which made the New York Times’ best-seller list, to spread the word. The 24-year-old Oher, who’ll go into his third NFL season, told his story to sports writer Dan Yaeger for a recent book, “I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to the Blind Side and Beyond.”

They see their newfound fame as a platform, an opportunity to inspire others to help their fellow man.

“We’re big believers that you can’t take it with you when you go. We’re big believers that when you’re giving it away, it’s really crazy, but the more you are giving, the more you seem to get back,” Tuohy said.

They turn down more offers than they accept. “Sean and I turned down everything you can imagine. We were offered every kind of reality show,” she said. She added that she gets four or five speaking offers a day and accepts only those where “we know the organization we’re speaking at is making a difference and contributing to the welfare of individuals.”

She took the “Makeover” job because it allows her to be part of a team that helps people in need while it draws on her design talents and promotes charitable causes. “Obviously, at this, I’m very cognizant that the more we’re out there, the more of a platform that we have, the more I can kick it in the butt,” Tuohy said.

Sandra Braham, executive director of the El Paso YWCA, thinks Tuohy has the name recognition that will help the $32 million operation raise up to $500,000 from the luncheon, money it needs for several programs. She expects up to 2,600 people to attend this year’s luncheon, the biggest turnout since Erin Brockovich — whose story also was turned into a hit movie — spoke in 2003.

“We were very excited (to get Tuohy) because she is so high-profile after having just come out with the movie, ‘The Blind Side,’ and her whole message of empowerment and the strength of character she shows in real life to not be afraid of what stereotypes warn us to be afraid” is a good match, Braham said. She called Tuohy “a little spitfire.”

Braham thinks we can all learn from what the Tuohys have done.

“They go back to that spirit of not judging a book by its cover,” Braham said. “What’s behind the people we walk past every day in El Paso.”

The YWCA operates a transitional living center that can hold up to 47 families, or about 140 people. It housed 88 women and children last year. They can stay there up to two years “to get their lives together and get back on their feet.”

Tuohy has been to Texas several times and has worked on projects with Anita Perry, the governor’s wife, but this will be her first visit to El Paso.

Tuohy knows that her outspoken nature can make enemies. But she’s not concerned. She’s on a mission.

“I can get more people focused on what they need to be focused on. Hate me or love me. I don’t care. They can talk about me all they want. I could give a rat’s ass,” she said, laughing. “All I care about are my family, the Lord and the people who buy tacos.”