‘The Goodness of Show Business People’: Entertainment charities put a focus on kids

Cinemas Features

When a baby named Catherine was found abandoned in a Pittsburgh, PA theatre on Christmas Eve 1928, a note asking finders to take care of her read, in part: “I have always heard of the goodness of show business people…” Through the years, that goodness has been—and continues to be—the foundation of several entertainment-based charities, each with a different sense of purpose, a different story that begins at a different time in a different way.

The child left behind led to the creation of Variety—The Children’s Charity. An upstate New York lodge—which became a hospital named in memory of an early star of movies and vaudeville—gave birth to The Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. A volunteer who believed that sick children in hospitals should be able to enjoy new movies at the same time as healthy kids co-founded the Lollipop Theater Network. A struggling entertainer who made a promise in a church helped to establish ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Today, these four organizations, among others, continue to demonstrate “the goodness of show business people.” Below, their directors discuss their uniqueness—and a common sense of commitment: to make a difference, especially in children’s lives.

Todd Vradenburg (Executive Director, Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation)I’ve worked for nonprofits for almost thirty years and what I find is that every charity is unique. All 1.2 million charities in America are unique in their mission and purpose.

Stan Reynolds (International Vice President, Variety—The Children’s Charity)One unique aspect of Variety is our naming structure; it’s based on a circus-themed party our founders had—and so we call each chapter a “Tent.” There are 43 total Tents around the world; 21 of them are in the United States. Each Tent is linked to the international office, but each does different things in different ways in different communities. Variety is a great family of people who care.

Evelyn Iocolano (Executive Director, Lollipop Theater Network)We’re the only organization that works with the studios on a regular basis to bring their new releases to children’s hospitals around the country. But the real purpose of Lollipop is to lift the spirits of the patients and the families we serve by using movies and entertainment to provide an escape from what is otherwise a very stressful time in their lives.

Richard Shadyac, Jr. (President and CEO, ALSAC)St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened in 1962 with a mission like no other—to discover how to save the lives of children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases—while ensuring that no family ever receives a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food. We are committed to continuing that practice so that families can focus on what matters most—helping their child live.

Vradenburg: What I find unique about our organization is that our industry has not only created our charity but has sustained it for eighty years. Today, we have three distinct units: the Pioneers Assistance Fund, the Will Rogers Institute and Brave Beginnings. The Pioneers Assistance Fund helps people on both a short-term and long-term basis; the Will Rogers Institute funds research and training programs on respiratory diseases; and Brave Beginnings provides hospital incubators and other life-saving equipment for premature babies born with pulmonary distress.

Iocolano: We’re focusing on the emotional part of children’s healing, on their spirit. We get multiple copies of a film currently in theatres and we show it in hospital playrooms; for children too sick to be moved, we show the movie in their room. Just recently, when I walked into a room to do a bedside screening, it seemed that this patient might be mobile enough to go to the larger group screening, so I told her about it. The mom spoke up and said, “She knows, but she told me that she wants to stay here and have some snuggle-time with me.” I thought: How cool is that? Who has snuggle-time in a hospital?

Reynolds: We do some work in hospitals, but we also build all-inclusive playgrounds for special-needs children; we provide vans to Boys and Girls Clubs and other organizations to get kids to their activities. Support for therapeutic camps—camps that serve special-needs kids—is also another cornerstone for Variety.We have a program called “Bikes for Kids” where we give away bikes to kids who can’t afford them. Each Tent does different things, but we all focus on the needs of children.

Vradenburg: In 2006, Variety approached us to help a Los Angeles hospital that needed multiple life-saving incubators for premature babies. We had never funded equipment or direct patient care outside of our own hospital, but we took a tour of the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—NICU—seeing the tiny infants on the life-saving equipment. It was not only incredibly moving, but also showed us we could make a difference in lives being saved—and we began the Will Rogers Institute Neonatal Ventilator Program. In 2015, we renamed that program “Brave Beginnings” and expanded its scope to include all equipment in the NICU.

Iocolano: We have other in-hospital programs—like our “Rhythm of Hope” music jams—where musicians teach kids the basics of music, help them write a song, and record it for them so they have a keepsake of their work. Or our “Artists Days,” where studio artists come in and draw for the kids after showing them a TV show or animated film. We also work with talent who sometimes just come in and play videogames with the kids or decorate t-shirts. And we had our second “Lollipop Superhero Walk” this year. We always have something.

Shadyac: I think of going to the movies as one of our greatest activities, but when you have a child battling a life-threatening disease, it’s nearly impossible to visit the theatre. That’s one of the reasons it’s so special when every year during our St. Jude “Thanks and Giving”campaign, one of our theatre partners hosts a special advance screening at St. Jude for a soon-to-be-released movie. It’s always a fun event that allows St. Jude families the opportunity to come together, eat popcorn, sometimes interact with characters, and get to feel a little sense of normalcy.

Reynolds: Since 2000, we’ve had the special-needs bike program. To see a kid who has cerebral palsy, whose body may not work correctly but whose mind is sharp, be able to ride a bike and finally feel like a regular kid—that just has to give you a sense that you’re making a difference. We had one kid with cerebral palsy who never walked. We got him a specialized bike that moved his legs—and six months after we gave him the bike he was walking assisted for the first time in his young life. He had developed muscles he never knew he had—and all because of that bike. If that doesn’t make you feel good, I don’t know what will.

Iocolano: We had an event called “Game Day,” a day of giant games—and afterwards a patient’s mom wrote us a letter and she said: “For the first time, we had a day without cancer.” And I thought: That’s what we want to create—every time we walk into a hospital, we want to create a time when a child feels free of any illness.

Shadyac: More than eighty exhibitors are incredible partners to us, leveraging the power of movie magic to support the St. Jude “Thanks and Giving” campaign by asking moviegoers to give thanks for the healthy kids in their life, and give to those who are not.

Reynolds: Our fundraisers have evolved to include polo matches and poker events, hunting and fishing events and golf tournaments, and lots of other programs. Every Tent has its own events and activities that they continue to improve and change, because they all know we have to keep things fresh, we have to change with the times.

Iocolano: Funding is always challenging and it gets harder and harder every year, for every charity. Right now, we’re stretched to the limit; the only way for us to take on a new hospital is to have designated funding for it. And we don’t spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising—but we do need to be out there, people do need to know what we’re doing.

Shadyac: We want members of the industry to understand our mission and the impact that they are helping make towards ending childhood cancer. We couldn’t do what we do without their support. The entertainment industry plays a crucial role in helping carry our message to the public.

Vradenburg: Our challenge is to keep reminding our members that their predecessors started this charity and now it’s up to them to keep it going. There’s no “duty” when it comes to a charity; it’s will, it’s desire, it’s a belief that you can and need to make a difference.

Reynolds: Charity is a business; we’re in the business of raising money—and we need the ideas and energy and commitment of great people to do that. With the exception of a small central staff, we’re all volunteers. But we raise a lot of money worldwide—and we’re doing a lot of good with the money we raise.

Shadyac: The movie industry is a global business, and St. Jude is committed to improving pediatric cancer care worldwide. Treatments developed at St. Jude have helped push the overall survival rate for childhood cancer from 20 percent when the hospital opened to more than 80 percent today. Still, globally the vast majority of childhood cancer patients do not have access to adequate care; we recently announced a $100 million investment to achieve an ambitious goal of influencing the care of 30 percent of children with cancer worldwide within the next decade.

Reynolds: For the future, I’d personally like to see Variety focus more on “mobility”—specialized bikes, vans, durable medical equipment on wheels for children—as a major unifying thread for what we do. I think that would make us an even more powerful force to be reckoned with.

Vradenburg: In our case, the Pioneers Assistance Fund is strong—and will continue. For the Will Rogers Institute, we’re going to narrow our focus on a particular pulmonary issue, tackle it and solicit support. And Brave Beginnings will most likely become a charity unto itself. To raise the amount of money required to get many hospitals up-to-speed equipment-wise requires a focused effort by a dedicated team of people—both industry- and non-industry related.

Iocolano: Since we started, we’ve visited seventy-five hospitals nationwide and have entertained more than forty-thousand children and family members. For the future, we’ll continue to work on keeping sick children connected to the outside world; we’ll try to keep providing their childhood to them. I can’t think of anyone who needs the magic of the movies more than the kids who are literally fighting for their lives.

Shadyac: Our partners in the entertainment industry have been instrumental in helping build St. Jude into what we are today. Our discoveries are their discoveries. Those children whose lives have been saved by the research and treatment they received at St. Jude are children that the exhibition industry helped save. For that, we are eternally grateful, but there’s still work to be done.

Vradenburg: Our industry is changing, but it’s still a very special family where people have done great good in the past and we need to them to continue to want to do good—to take care of each other—for the future.

Reynolds: At the end of the day, we’re all going to grow old, but we want to leave a legacy on this Earth. And I think that making a kid smile is a great legacy.