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The Game Show Convention Center
April 4, 2000

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Where Did We Go Wrong Sunday?

       This is one of my few columns which will not directly relate to a game show. Yet, the subject has connections with a popular emcee and an indirect tie I have to him.
       I am somewhat disappointed today. Not in my community---but in arguably the failure of myself and a few others to tell a story adequately enough about the needs of some special children. If one person knows what I mean, it's Wink Martindale.
       Sunday, for the tenth year, I co-hosted the annual West Tennessee Cerebral Palsy Telethon on our local ABC affiliate. Not unlike most local telethons, the 15-hour event resembled a large county house party. Lots of entertainment, lots of telling a story about a center with an enormous responsibility and undertaking----to care for children in a 10-county area with an impairment to the motor nerve of the brain. Children who have a lot in life for which none of them asked.
       The performers would not be well known to most of you. Many of them are people who sing in school and church choirs, entertain at community events and a few are hopefuls of a break in Nashville one day. Probably the closest thing to a name we have is Stan Perkins, son of the late King of Rockabilly Carl Perkins---who is upholding the tradition of his father's band.
       Sunday, we who were charged with the chore of telling the story of our special children did not adequately do the job. We can argue all day how telethons are passe. They may be. We could suggest if we had spent money on bigger names, perhaps more dollars would have been raised. That's possible.
       Regardless, we finished the night $9,000 under our final figure for 1999. In your city, $134,000 may not appear to be a large amount. However, in rural west Tennessee, that is supposed to represent 30 per cent of the operations of our CP center for the next year. We fell short of the needs by approximately $15,000. Accordingly, the center may have to do without an additional teacher, or have some service cut because the dollars won't be there.
       What does Wink have to do with this? Wink hosted and produced this same telethon----albeit on a much larger scale----from 1976-86. This is his hometown. If you read his autobiography, "Winking at Life," he devotes a full chapter to his love for the children at the CP Center and a credible reason why he stopped doing the telethon.
       When Wink ended his association with the telethon, he took some unfair raps from a few wiseacres in the community. A local talk show host who is still on the air openly accused Wink of self-promotion and self-profit from the telethon. To this day, the shot has little credibility to anyone with common sense. With the success and wealth Wink was accumulating from Tic Tac Dough, carpetbagging his own hometown would have been his least necessary expedience.
       In his book, Wink attempts to set the record straight about the accusations, which still fester with a pocket of people in Jackson---most of whom have only picked up the story via hearsay.
       Wink---in a letter to the Cerebral Palsy board---suggested the expense and energies of doing a telethon were becoming too high for a small community. His better idea---hire a full-time professional fundraiser who could coordinate financial activities for the center on a year-round basis.
       After seeing us for four years sit on almost a stationary front in the $130-140K range while expenses continue to rise (and this is a center operated with more frugality than in most cities where I have previously lived), I am increasingly subscribing to Wink's idea. After all, telethons are increasingly going the route most people felt network prime time quiz shows had taken before Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Had I known his chapter was in the book, I would have discussed it with him during his recent visit here to get his insights. After all, he's a far bigger name than I and knows of the joys and pitfalls of this undertaking as well as anyone.
       However, my issues today are two brothers named Jason and Zach, who badly need additional therapy. A little girl named Amanda who seriously needs a communication device which costs about $6,000. Children who are on a waiting list to receive attention from the center because the facilities are not adequate enough to handle the need and demand. I've spent time with those kids and I've seen their small progress turn into big victories. I've seen their parents, who carry an internal burden every day, maintain an outer picture of optimism. I've heard the stories of how the children (and their folks) can often be devastated by callous comments from people in grocery stores or shopping malls----people who would dare not make those same remarks to the faces of those kids.
       I'm grateful for every penny we received because many of those who pledged did so sacrificially. Yet, Sunday afternoon and evening, we let those children down. We didn't tell our story well enough to our community, the 15th fastest-growing metro area in America, in a hub county with unemployment under three per cent. We didn't do the jobs we were selected to do well enough. If only there was something else we could have said or done. Another $15,000 would have made a major difference in the next year. Another $20,000 would have more than met the needs of these children. Wink may well be right. This may be the time to seek a better way for our children. Obviously, in the year 2000, we didn't do it right.
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