Children with learning disabilities ranks somewhere between terrorism and animal cruelty on the list of topics that are funny. Yet comedians like Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers and Jeff Foxworthy have laughed up hundreds of thousands of dollars for Colorado kids with learning disabilities thanks to the work of the Zarlengo Foundation, which is bringing Howie Mandel to the Bellco Theatre in Denver for their annual comedy fundraiser on September 9 (click here for tickets).
According to Kathryn Zarlengo, Executive Director of the Zarlengo Foundation -- whose mission is to support “schools and programs for learning disabled children in and around the Denver community” -- the inspiration to pair comedy with their fundraiser came from a famous source.
“In 2008 we brought Henry Winkler -- The Fonz from “Happy Days” -- to our dinner and he gave a speech,” Zarlengo told AXS.com in a recent interview. “Henry Winkler is dyslexic, and so he gives this speech about his struggles growing up dyslexic, but his speech was also really funny. And so, you looked around the room and people were really enjoying themselves hearing this speech about a serious topic, but it was really funny. So that kind of turned a light bulb on for me.”
In 2011, the Foundation set its sights on one of the most famous comedians in the world: Jay Leno.
“Leno obviously was out of our price range at this point but Leno is also dyslexic,” Zarlengo says. “So when we decided to do our very first comedy event, we said, ‘we have enough money right now to book Leno and have the event. If it’s successful, we win and we keep going. And if it’s not successful, I find a new job and we close down the foundation.’ That’s literally the risk we took when we brought Jay Leno.”
The gamble paid off.
“[Leno] came out and he did a show for 80 minutes, which is more than he was contracted for,” Zarlengo says. “And then, he stopped and he told his entire story about growing up dyslexic and what it was like for him and the scars he still holds from his experiences at school back when he was growing up. And then he donated $10,000 on the spot, on the stage, to the foundation.”
With the fundraising hook established, the Zarlengo Foundation turned its attention to how to best distribute the money. In addition to providing resources for schools, teacher training and book programs like Learning Ally, the nonprofit also provides support to Rocky Mountain Camp for dyslexic kids. During the mornings, the kids receive “really intense tutoring that will help them in the following school year,” Zarlengo says, while the afternoons are focused on celebrating each child’s strengths.
“LD kids are typically really good at things like art and sports and creative play, like acting and that sort of thing. So they focus their activities in the afternoon on the kids’ strengths,” Zarlengo says. “‘Let’s get even better at horseback riding or whitewater rafting or climbing or basketball or art,’ whatever it is. So then the kids, in the morning they work on something that’s really hard but in the afternoon, they just thrive in this area that they’re really good at. So it helps build self-esteem and confidence going into the school year, which is huge for those kids.”
That emphasis on self-esteem is a major focus for the foundation and the success of famous dyslexics like Winkler, Leno and countless others -- from athletes like Muhammad Ali to inventors like Henry Ford to entrepreneurs like Richard Branson -- serve as positive examples for kids who are struggling with school.
“Particularly with people who are dyslexic, your mind is obviously wired differently,” Zarlengo says. “And so there’s a question around whether it’s actually wired to be more creative or, because of your struggles reading and learning in school, if you become more creative because you have to learn how to cope and find these strategies to become successful at whatever you’re doing.
“We talk to kids all the time about the gift of dyslexia: Just because you are dyslexic doesn’t mean you can’t go on to do absolutely amazing things,” she continues. “History shows us that mostly likely you will go on to be really successful, because your brain thinks differently than just an average person.”
That type of positive mental repositioning is well suited for a foundation that uses comedy to champion a serious cause. And with all proceeds from their events going toward the foundation -- “Because our sponsors pay for the event, all our ticket purchases actually goes to helping kids with learning disabilities in our community,” Zarlengo says -- your laughter will fill the coffers.
Click this link to get your tickets to see Howie Mandel and special guest Dan Naturman at the Bellco Theatre on Sept. 9. And for more information on the Zarlengo Foundation, including how to make a donation, visit their official website.