Posted by: trevormeers | March 6, 2012

The Donation Will Not Be Televised

“It’s going to be another 10 or 15 minutes,” said the nice woman in the sparkly T-shirt and comfy slippers. “Those ladies in the red vests up front raised about $240,000 on their own, so they want to give them some air time.”

Behind the camera as Hour 22 approaches at the telethon studios.

She gestured toward a bank of telethon operators, seemingly delivered straight from the company that supplies the extras to Jerry Lewis and public television pledge drives. A bleacher-style stack of folks sat patiently behind rows of phones, waiting for generous viewers to dial in with a donation that would send the numbers spinning on the big digital tote board overhead. A gaggle of chatty ladies in the front row got ready as the roving camera crew headed their way with an actor from General Hospital, who was prepping to do what must surely have been his 50th volunteer interview of the day.

The delay was a non-event to our little team of celebrities. The moment we took our hand off Katie’s shoulder, she bolted out of the ballroom and back to the glass overlooking the long escalators descending out of the lobby. A couple of Boy Scouts were racing up the down escalator, and in Katie’s book, that meant the TV people could afford to wait all day.

This was just the latest gig in what has been a mini run of celebrity appearances built around Katie’s star power. We didn’t set out to become a poster family for kids with special needs, but Katie is generally considered adorable, and the rest of us generally don’t say a lot of stupid things when the red light comes on. So we keep showing up in brochures, TV commercials, cattle shows and the Variety telethon that fills Des Moines’ airwaves for about 24 hours each spring and raises millions to help kids with various challenges. We agree to whatever we can because it’s all in the interest of helping good causes. Or, in this case, benefitting from one.

Mom gets Katie into her cat bike helmet while we're still hoping she may actually ride the bike on-camera.

After various insurance programs turned down the purchase of a specialized bike for Katie, one of her physical therapist peeps submitted it for a grant from the Variety team. Kids like Katie tend to accumulate posses larger than a rap star’s, and her gang was obviously pulling the right levers, since we received a letter one day congratulating us on the new bike Variety was going to give Katie.

There was but one catch: They wanted to give her the bike on live TV during the telethon. Obviously, people tend to give more money to buy kids special equipment when they see cute kids gleefully receiving some of said equipment. Still, the TV aspect was not tremendous news from our perspective.

Readers of a certain age will recall the ongoing misadventures Johnny Carson endured at the hands of Joan Embry, a plucky representative of the San Diego Zoo who showed up in The Tonight Show’s guest chair with various critters. Each visit began with Johnny asking a few earnest questions about the animal’s habits, habitat, etc. Then the monkey/lizard/bird would inevitably wind up on Johnny’s head, down his shirt or in some other embarrassing position. Hilarity ensued as Johnny gazed woefully at the camera and Ed McMahon guffawed from somewhere off-camera.

Operators are standing by to take your pledge...

Vegas put a five-star lock on our telethon appearance going pretty much like that. Despite Katie’s naturally gregarious way, it helps to always remember how the world looks from her vantage point. When a small group of people gathers around and shines bright lights her way, it generally means somebody’s about to jab her with a needle or, in some cases, sedate her for the next two weeks and operate on her spine. Thus informed, you can see how it might get a little freaky when a singer, a guy with a microphone, a corporate representative and several guys carrying big cameras and wearing bacon T-shirts descend upon you.

The plan was for our family to sit endearingly on red carpeted cubes while we chatted with the host, the hostess and the rep of the company who provided funding for Katie’s bike. Then the guy who just finished singing Georgia On My Mind would roll the bike in, Katie would mount up, and they’d cut to the bluegrass band for the next segment.

It all followed that script until we reached the part where I told Katie we had to leave the escalators because the producer was waving us into the ballroom. While Teri took her spot on a cube beside the telethon host, who was jotting our names on a piece of paper hidden in his palm, I held Katie off to the side. Just before the camera’s red light came on, Katie decided this whole situation had turned freakier than she’d anticipated. She screwed up her face in a frightened bawl, and tears started squeezing from the corners of her eyes.

One of the celebrity presenters kills time with Katie's bike while we wait for our big moment.

“So tell me about Katie,” the host said to Teri as I watched the monitor in front of us to ensure we were lurking just outside the shot. “I bet Papa’s watching us at home!” I whispered in Katie’s ear, buying a few seconds of relief as she pondered this possibility. I stepped back into the shot so the world could glimpse the happy bike recipient. “Well,” I heard Teri saying, “she can’t use a regular bike, so this new bike will let her go on bike rides with us as a family.” Katie looked at the cameras and let out a, “Meeeeeh-waaaaah!”

The host kept chatting, and I slid sideways so viewers could see only my shoulder and part of Katie’s leg. She sobered up, and we ducked back into the frame. Pressing crowd. Bright lights. More bawling. “Oh, look,” the hostess said. “She’s crying for joy!”

One of the bacon-shirt guys stood behind the camera, holding a sign marked “80 seconds” down by his hip. “Hold up the sign! Hold up the sign!” I thought as Katie kept crying and sweat started to roll down my temple.

Teri puts the schmooze on while the rest of us lurk safely out of the picture.

Now Teri was holding a giant check for something like $96,000. “Boy, you can buy a lot of mobility with that!” the host said, and then they cut away to the band.

As soon as I put Katie on the floor, she started running back toward the ongoing festivities at the escalator, and I thought about the strange charitable world we navigate. Three days earlier, I attended orientation as a new board member at a local charity that helps families of sick kids. During the introductory video, I remembered our family’s own use of this charity 18 months ago, and the fact that we certainly may need it again in the future. And by the weekend, we’d already oscillated back to the much-appreciated receiving end of a charity.

At least briefly. As we passed through the ballroom, a woman stopped Teri. “I want you to know your little daughter made my day,” she said. “I was having a terrible day. I had a seizure earlier. But when I saw her smile, it changed everything.”

Call it one more successful outing for the poster kid. Just don’t try to broadcast it live.

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