Philanthropist of the Year: Above and Beyond
As vice president of Darcars Automotive Group, Tammy Darvish is a busy, successful businesswoman who could show her support of local nonprofits by writing checks and chairing fancy galas. She does that and much more.
One morning in 2012, Tammy Darvish parked her Lexus RX 350 at Westfield Wheaton mall, walked to a housing complex a few blocks away and knocked on the door of a woman she’d never met. She was there to shadow a stranger, a young single mother, and she didn’t know what to expect.
She knew the statistics on poverty in Montgomery County. From the time her own kids were toddlers, she had asked guests not to bring presents to birthday parties, only gift cards for charity. She donated time and money, so much so that her phone rang nearly every day with somebody asking for help. But this was different than putting together a holidayfood drive or hosting a fundraising dinner for 300 guests at her 15,000-square-foot home in Potomac. She was inviting herself into someone else’s world.
“We took three buses to get from Wheaton to Takoma Park for her to go to work at a bakery to make $8 an hour,” says Darvish, vice president of Darcars Automotive Group, a $1.25 billion family-owned automotive sales empire headquartered in Silver Spring. “She was so excited—she’d just gotten a raise to $8.25.”
Darvish had signed up for the Vehicles for Change “Walk in Their Shoes” program to see what it’s like for low-income residents to rely on public transportation. Darcars is a longtime supporter of Vehicles for Change, a Maryland nonprofit that repairs donated cars and awards them to families in need. For the Wheaton mom, who’d served in the military, not having a car meant 3 ½ hours a day on Ride-On buses. It meant lugging groceries on the bus with her 3-year-old son in tow, and long rides to the doctor or the pharmacy when he was sick. How does she do this? Darvish thought.
The woman reminded her of people she’d met at a Rockville homeless shelter—intelligent and ambitious, just down on her luck. She told Darvish she wanted to take Metro to work, but couldn’t afford it. That made Darvish think about the times she’d put $5 on a Metro card instead of figuring out the exact fare, how the $1.40 she probably wasted would have mattered to people who are struggling. “You don’t realize the domino effect of simple challenges until you experience them firsthand,” Darvish says. “It’s like running a business—if you sit in an ivory tower, you never get an accurate pulse on reality.”
When someone recently asked Darvish to write a check to cover the cost of backpacks for underprivileged kids, she said she’d rather go out and buy them herself. She likes getting her employees together on a Sunday morning to shop for school supplies. If one Target is out of pencils, someone runs to another store. Then they make an assembly line in a Darcars conference room and stuff backpacks. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but every single person then feels significant,” she says. “ ‘I did 200 of them. I did 50 of them. I did something.’ ”
Darvish, 51, could easily send the money, but she’d rather get involved—and get her family involved. She’s always brought her two kids to charity events—her son, 17-year-old Nima, still goes with her—and had them help make brownies for fundraisers or centerpieces for galas. They’ve often heard her say, “There’s a fine line between the people who need help and the people who can help—and you never know which side you’ll be on.” Now they say it themselves.
Darvish’s daughter, Nadia, a 2013 Bullis School graduate, still talks about a little boy she met during a holiday party at a Washington, D.C., public school. Her mother had collected and donated toys for the party, which was sponsored by the Washington DC Police Foundation, and Nadia went with her to help out. All the kids got to pick out one present and the boy chose a Barbie princess. “Don’t you want a boy thing, like a truck?” a volunteer asked. He said no, that he wanted something for his sister because he didn’t think she’d get any Christmas gifts. “See?” Tammy Darvish says. “They remember that.”
Before she emceed a Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless (MCCH) gala two years ago, Darvish asked if she could meet April Asare, the woman whose story she would be sharing with the audience. Asare knew Darvish’s face from Darcars TV commercials. She told Darvish about her journey out of homelessness—the night she almost had to sleep in her car with her three children until a police officer found them, her stay at the Stepping Stones Shelter in Rockville, how MCCH had helped her get her life on track.
“A lot of corporate America throws money at a problem and that’s their contribution. For her, it was way deeper than that. She felt connected and invested,” says Asare, who spent seven years in MCCH’s Partnership for Permanent Housing Program and now has a master’s degree in social work and serves on the board of directors. “What I thought would be maybe a 10- to 15-minute conversation turned into 45 minutes. We laughed and talked. These were emotional issues I was describing to her—and she just absorbed it and asked questions.”
It is Darvish’s commitment to local nonprofits serving people in Montgomery County that has earned her the 2014 Philanthropist of the Year award from The Community Foundation in Montgomery County (CFMC). Amid six- or seven-day workweeks and international business travel, she makes time for endless hours of charity work. She works closely with MCCH, Holy Cross Hospital, the Parkinson Foundation of the National Capital Area, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), Goodwill of Greater Washington, Junior Achievement and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital’s pediatric oncology division. During the last year, under her leadership, Darcars Automotive Group has raised and contributed more than $1 million in financial and in-kind donations. Darvish and her husband, Hamid Fallahi, also make private contributions.
“She’s writing a check and delivering the message—using her time, treasure and talent,” says C. Marie Henderson, executive director of CFMC. “She’s completely hands-on. And very humble.”
Last year, Darvish helped create a “Student of the Year” program at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, an organization she joined forces with after losing her 25-year-old cousin to lymphoma. Darvish’s son and 15 other high schoolers, mostly from Montgomery County, spent six weeks competing to see who could raise the most money for cancer research. They held bake sales and benefits at local restaurants. An Academy of the Holy Cross junior hosted a concert at a nightclub, charged $30 a ticket, and convinced DJs to play for free.
“Three hundred bucks here, five hundred bucks there, next thing you know we have $385,000,” Darvish says. “A bunch of kids. Half of them couldn’t even drive.”
Darvish occasionally hears from pom squads or high school clubs that want money for a trip. She usually turns them down. That’s not a necessity, she says. Instead, she’ll offer to let them use one of the company’s car washes for a day and take home all the profit. “Ninety-nine percent of them don’t want to do it. They just want the check,” she says. “My feeling is: You don’t want to work for it? That’s what we all do. We work for it.”
She was 13 when she and her twin sister forged their birth certificates so they could get permits to work. Her parents had separated when she was 4 and she’d moved from Maryland to Chicago with her mother, Bonnie. Her father, John, an Iranian immigrant who’d come to America for medical school but decided he loved selling used cars, was struggling to get his new business off the ground. Darvish was already babysitting, but money was tight so she got a job at a laundromat to help pay the bills.
“I washed and folded,” she says. “That’s what I did every day after school and Saturdays.”
Other kids were buying Jordache jeans; she couldn’t. She rarely got invited to parties. Her neighbor, a stay-at-home mom, drove her kids to school every day but never offered Darvish a ride. “Not belonging is a terrible feeling,” she says. “I never want a kid to feel like that.”
After high school, Darvish moved back to Montgomery County because she wanted to live with her father. She spent the summer answering phones at Glenmont Chrysler Plymouth, one of his dealerships, and wasn’t sure what she’d do next.
“You have to go to college,” her father told her. He convinced her to apply to Northwood University in Michigan, a school he often recruited from, to study automotive marketing and management.
“My first term I had a 1.23 GPA,” says Darvish. “I was social director.”
Everything changed after an accident on campus. Darvish was crossing the street when a friend ran into her with his van. “He was stopping and going. Teasing me,” she says. She had two broken legs. “When I went back to school, I still had one cast on and I really had to learn how to walk on my own again.” She had nothing to do but study. She took a heavy course load, graduated early with honors, and told her father she was ready to be a general manager. “What do you mean?” he said. “You have to sell cars first.”