But Helmer has persevered in his drive to raise a million dollars for charity, earn redemption and inspire others in need of a second chance. Traveling in a pickup truck or car instead of an RV, he is taking his music and story to RV parks, wineries, dude ranches and other venues that offer paying gigs, while also performing free concerts on behalf of everything from the Wounded Warrior Project and a Utah camp for children with disabilities to a historic theater in the small Washington town of Raymond.
When I talked with him in March, he said he had helped charities raise $250,000 so far and he was optimistic that his efforts would produce $1 million by the end of this year.
Drawn to Music
Helmer’s story is a tale of rising business success, followed by bankruptcy and disgrace, and now reinvention. Helmer grew up in Elgin, Illinois, a small town outside Chicago. Suffering from asthma, he spent most of his childhood indoors. When he was about 5 or 6, he started playing drums in his basement and that led to a consuming interest in music. “I don’t think I left that basement for 15 years,” he said.
Music was his passion, but to earn a living he became an insurance salesman. He founded his own business in Arizona, Helmer Risk Management, serving corporate clients in the construction and energy fields. The company was successful for a while but when the Great Recession came along in 2008, it was ill prepared and burdened by debt. Helmer tried to refinance and thought he had found a solution. While waiting for the expected refinancing to materialize, Helmer scrambled to keep his business afloat by tapping into money belonging to clients and when the refinancing fell through, the business collapsed.
The state charged Helmer with multiple counts of fraud and theft by using funds that he should have forwarded to insurance companies. He was facing serious prison time.
It was at that point, Helmer said, that he contemplated suicide, having lost his livelihood, his reputation, and the woman and child with whom he had made a home.
At his sentencing hearing in 2011, Helmer said, he was surprised that so many former clients showed up to speak on his behalf. He had settled the case by pleading guilty to one count of fraud, and perhaps because of his friends’ support and the fact he had been truthful about the misuse of funds, the judge gave him probation, not prison time, and ordered him to make restitution. Helmer said he owes more than $500,000 and intends to meet that obligation and eventually try to get his insurance license back.
Playing for Charity
To put his life back on track, he has turned to music, opening for acts such as Heart, Jeff Bridges and Eddie Money. With his brother, Rich Helmer, he has written and produced an album of music and he is touring solo, playing everywhere from the Wine Country RV Park in Paso Robles, California, to the Stadig Campground in Wells, Maine.
He tries to work six days a week, interspersing paid appearances with charity shows. He has a standing offer to perform a 90-minute set of rock and country favorites and his own original material for free for legitimate charities if they promise to use that event to try to raise at least $5,000. He makes a point of not handling any money or donations.
His goal is to perform for free at 200 charity events during his “Support Your Cause Tour,” which began with a motorcycle ride and concert at a Harley-Davidson dealership in Orange County, California, last May and will run through the end of this year.
Helmer said the songs he has written are autobiographical and as he introduces the songs at his performances, he tells the story of his plunge into desperation and his recovery. “So many people relate to my story,” he said. “They tell me, ‘Your story is inspiring.’”
Helmer hopes his example will prompt others who need a second chance in life to take stock of their situation, and, as he did with music, find what they are passionate about, pursue it, and maybe help others.
At 41 years of age, Helmer concedes that he is late to the music game. Without the backing of a record label, manager, booking agent or publicist, he has a lot of work to do, and touring can be a grind. But then, he said, what could be better than sitting on a stage, singing and strumming his guitar.
Helmer is still working to fill out his tour schedule with RV resorts and other venues, and to add more charity appearances. You can find information at scotthelmer.com.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find “First Glance” online at rvlife.com.