Like comedian Ellen DeGeneres, longtime friends and neighbors Nikki Sutton and Jackie Phillipi enjoy helping others.
The pair, along with four friends, are known in the Houston community for doing kind deeds – organizing meal trains for neighbors who are sick or underwent surgery, making bags with toiletries and cash to hand out to the homeless, purchasing lottery tickets to hand out to strangers, volunteering to help for athletic events and activities their children have participated in over the years.
Sutton and Phillipi were thrilled – and shocked – when they recently got the chance to appear on DeGeneres’ new digital series, “Let Me In So You Can Win.”
Former NFL player and “America’s Got Talent” finalist Jon Dorenbos, host of “Let Me In,” travels the country to surprise families, friends and co-workers who give back to the community with a chance to win prizes by competing in a series of wacky games.
On Oct. 26, he knocked on the doors of Sutton’s and Phillip’s homes in Houston’s Fair Meadow neighborhood to tell them they were contestants in the show – and it was going to be filmed that day.
“We were surprised,” said Sutton, who believed she had entered a contest to win tickets for her and her best friends to attend The Ellen Show. “We had no idea we were going to be a part of a show. The whole thing was so much fun. At the end of the day, we were exhausted,” said Sutton.
Film crews closed off the neighborhood streets, and for about eight hours, Sutton and Phillipi went head-to-head in a series of games while cameramen taped the action.
The pair faced-off in a game called “2 Hot 2 Handle,” where Dorenbos asked them trivia questions and two large photos popped up from a “toaster.” The women, wearing oversized oven mitts, had to run to the “toaster” and bring back the correct photo.
Example: When Dorenbos asked, “Which is an actual fruit,” photos of a cucumber and broccoli popped up and the women had to battle to grab the photo of the cucumber.
Both won $600 each.
The women also competed in a tricycle race where they had to ride the trikes along a course – while neighbors and friends squirted them with super-sized water guns and pelted them with water balloons – and retrieve a key with their teeth from a giant bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, then return to the start of the race.
Sutton handily won the race, and earned a chance to win a new Chevrolet Mustang convertible. Her task: to select the correct key out of the three that Dorenbos dropped into black pouches.
Sutton ended up choosing a key that belonged to a 1969 Ford LTD clunker. But, Sutton was relieved to discover a briefcase stuffed with $10,000 in the trunk of the classic car.
Dorenbos also paid her $2,000 to buy the car back.
Friends and neighbors served as cheerleaders – Sutton said the crew even made a Fathead with the pair’s faces on them.
When filming was complete, Dorenbos stuck around and ate wedding soup with the ladies and performed magic tricks.
“He was so down to earth and so upbeat and positive, and so was the entire film crew,” said Sutton.
Sutton said Ellen’s message to “Be kind to one another” and to lift people up has inspired her group to reach out to others.
For the Circle of Friends Day of Caring, the women – Sutton, Phillipi, Susan Vulcano, Marge Kesneck, Chrissa Johnson and Kathy Belfiore – organized a clothing and supply drive for Domestic Violence of Southwestern Pennsylvania. They assembled bags filled with necessities and delivered them.
The women plan to do another drive for Domestic Violence next year, focusing on appliances – toasters, blenders and other items those who are fleeing a home leave behind – and items for teens.
“We really did learn something from this,” said Sutton. “Ellen talks about being kind and paying it forward. We said we need to come up with a bigger way to give back, and that’s why we organized the Domestic Violence drive. We need to ask, what can I do? You can always give something back. You can always help out. This was definitely a good memory and a good experience for all of us.”