In the center of America’s heartland, Branson, Missouri, has embraced a mission to help children with severe disabilities across the globe through an initiative aptly titled BRANSON CARES. Dubbed “The Live Entertainment Capital of America,” Branson attracts more than 9 million visitors a year to experience thrilling attractions and the outdoor beauty of the Ozarks in a hospitable, family-friendly environment. But it’s the theater industry in Branson that’s leading the charge by inviting audiences to join the community in donating to Hope Haven International Ministries, an organization that provides free pediatric wheelchairs to children who would otherwise be without mobility.
The Big Deal About Branson
“Branson has always had a big humanitarian heart,” said Bob Nichols, president of the Branson Academy from the Advancement of Music and Theatre (BAAMT), “but BRANSON CARES is different because it’s our shows and theaters leading our community in a citywide effort… The children who are receiving benefit of these wheelchairs are in 109 different countries. Hope Haven has already distributed over 130,000 wheelchairs, but now Branson has the opportunity to step forward as a city that cares and be the funding mechanism for this incredible program.”
Everybody has an opportunity to build a display based on what their facilities can accommodate, explained Nichols. Many include a banner, wheelchair and a DipJar that accepts a credit card for donation. At intermission they run a video that shows the good work of these wheelchairs being distributed, which is introduced by the entertainers in each theater endorsing the program, and if people feel passionate about it, there’s a place in the lobby where they can donate.
“During three weeks in November, our entertainers announce from the stage that they will be in the lobby after the show with red buckets, taking cash donations in person from their guests as they exit the theater. The third segment is in the spring when we will host a stage production, featuring entertainers from as many shows in town as we can squeeze in. Held at Branson Famous Theater, where the local group called the Baldknobbers performs, it celebrates the achievements of the citywide BRANSON CARES charity drive at the same time that we preview our shows for the coming year.”
BRANSON CARES was modeled after the historic Broadway Cares initiative begun in the 1980’s when the entertainment industry was reeling from the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Performers collected donations in red buckets in the lobby to help their peers who were dying from the disease. Since it began in 1988, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has raised more than $300 million for essential services for people with HIV/AIDS and other critical illness in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
While it’s not Broadway, Branson is a tourist destination driven mostly by music and live shows. Home to 33 theaters offering more than 115 shows, Branson has more live theater seats than any other town in the country. Since the first family began to perform in Branson as the “Baldknobbers” in the 1950’s, it has attracted such legends as Roy Clark, the Presleys, Mel Tillis, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Tony Orlando, Bobby Vinton, Dolly Parton and many others. Branson is home to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater and the renowned Sight and Sound Theatres, known for its musical production of the life of JESUS, and much more.
The concept for BRANSON CARES was introduced to BAAMT by the Hope Haven team led by Good News publisher, Les Feldman, who is philanthropic and previously worked closely with the entertainment industry while publishing PLAYBILL® for over 30 years in theaters across the country.
“When Les brought this to me last fall, we took it to the board immediately,” said Nichols. “What we saw was an opportunity to not only be a part of an incredible program, which is so viscerally enriching the lives of so many people around the world, but also an opportunity to bring the members of our industry together for a common cause. Our industry could lead the way to uniting the various segments of our tourism economy behind this incredible, caring effort as well. The wins are lined up with this deal, uniting our industry, uniting our community, providing care for these kids who need it. It’s a work of passion.”
Brandon Mabe, manager of Branson Famous Theater and a performer starring in the Baldknobbers show his grandfather and great uncles started more than 60 years ago, said, “I thought it was awesome that we could come together as a community and raise money for pediatric wheelchairs to go to these children who are deeply in need of them.”
Mabe recalled a childhood friend with Muscular Dystrophy who relied on a wheelchair and said that “pulled at my heartstrings.”
Laurie Hayes, executive director of the Branson Area Lodging Association, representing over 150 lodging properties, said, “The hospitality in Branson is unique. Faith is still very important to many of us in Branson, and the travelers who come to Branson tend to believe in faith, family and flag, so I think it’s a good fit.”
Hayes said she liked Hope Haven so much that she had them make a presentation to the Rotary Club as well. “Rotary is very big on polio vaccination and a lot of people impacted by polio have mobility issues, including children,” she noted.
As CEO of the Hughes Brothers Theater and matriarch of what USA Today called one of the world’s largest performing families, Lena Hughes said, “BRANSON CARES is good for the community. Branson represents hometown America and the values its stood for.” Like many of the theater operators, she’s displaying a pop-up banner about providing the wheelchairs in her lobby and plans to show a brief video about the unique pediatric wheelchairs that are highly adaptable.
Mike Patrick, General Manager at Grand Country Music Hall, which is home to eight live shows and a weekly television show, said he plans to air a 30-second spot about BRANSON CARES on their syndicated TV show, Branson Country USA. “With a potential audience over radio and television of 80 million, Patrick said, “if they all tune in, the television show may have a huge impact.” He added, “I love that Branson is always a charitable town.”
According to Mark Siemonsma, Hope Haven foundation director, The Hope Haven KidChair can be sponsored for just $275, which is pretty economical. “If you were to buy a wheelchair that could do everything that wheelchair can do in the United States, you’d be spending $3,500 to $9,000 per chair depending on the need. What also makes it affordable is that when we put a child in there, they can be from 15 pounds up to about 115 pounds, so it’s amazing the expansion we’ve got. It also bends and conforms to their body shape to make their life as functional and comfortable as possible yet gives them enough support. It’s really a spectacular wheelchair.”
Hope Haven International, headquartered in Rock Valley, Iowa, and neighboring city, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is a Christ-centered organization that empowers people with disabilities to unleash their potential so they may enjoy a productive life in their community. Each wheelchair they distribute empowers a child to go to school, interact with their peers and participate in community activities. They’ve provided over 133,000 wheelchairs in more than 109 countries and are expanding their outreach in Romania.
“BRANSON CARES could be an opportunity for people all across North American who go to Branson to learn about Hope Haven and possibly support the ministry,” Siemonsma said, “I think it’s incredible for the mayor, the council, the restaurant association, the theater association and the hotel association to get behind it. Now it’s in God’s hands.”
Sheila Dutton, manager of The Dutton Family Theater and matriarch of the Dutton family, which has been performing together for over 30 years, said, “I was immediately on board with BRANSON CARES. I’ve had a long history of being affected by people in other countries who did not have mobility. We’ve toured a lot and seen, firsthand, people who have had to drag themselves around on the ground for all of their lives, and I’ve seen the joy and delight that comes to them when they get a wheelchair. The fact that they’re helping children who are facing their whole life, and families that have that burden of transporting their children in whatever way they can, was a big factor.”
After having seven biological children, Dutton said their lives were changed forever when they adopted seven teenagers who were considered unadoptable. “This was not something we went looking for, but we were approached by someone in the music industry,” Dutton said. “It came and found me just like BRANSON CARES.” One of their adoptive sons was paralyzed from the waist down and had a very expensive wheelchair. “He passed away in 2014, but I always kept the chair to give to someone who would really need it, perhaps someone in Russia or Eastern Europe who were never able to get wheelchairs.”
After being introduced to BRANSON CARES, The Duttons agreed to perform a concert in Sioux Center, South Dakota, for Hope Haven and she presented them with her son’s wheelchair, saying, “It was an answer to prayer.”
She’s excited about the impact BRANSON CARES is making. “Whenever a community comes together – even if its just a segment of the community – giving of themselves, it creates a good business environment,” explained Dutton. “It helps to create a good community spirit. It develops friendships. In addition to that, Branson has these millions of people who come to visit, so it extends to our audience members as well. Those who feel moved or feel touched have that opportunity to participate. They may think it’s a small thing if they put $5 in a DipJar or a dollar in a bucket, but when that happens, we’re able to accomplish things in a bigger way.”
Branson Alderman Marshall Howden, the grandson of Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis and a performer in his own right is the city’s ambassador to the shows. He said, “I’m thrilled that the Branson theaters are leading the effort in this philanthropic area to organize BRANSON CARES, so we can show that we are a community of faith and family, and we kind of put our money where our mouth is, so-to-speak, to help people around the world who are in desperate need of help. I’m seeing a lot of momentum for it around town, and it’s really exciting.”
Branson, Missouri, will potentially be known all over the world as the city that cares.
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