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4JRYSKDS For Jerry's Kids The Fight Against Muscular Dystrophy 



By June Kempf

“ Mema, what do the letters on your license plates mean? “                                  

 “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose it means something to you - or about some organization you are in.”

“Well, they mean, For Jerry’s Kids,” I said.


It is a reaction I come to expect these days. In the past, people I met along the road figured it out. They voiced their support by honking their car horns and giving thumbs up signals as they passed me – especially around Labor Day. But today, 13 year old G G, didn’t have a clue. Clearly, I had some explaining to do.

After all, I have been driving around with the same vanity plates for over 25 years. I keep renewing them time and time again, even though they are essentially stale dated. Today, few people know what ‘4JRYSKDS’ signifies; although one truck driver recently gave me what I perceived  to be a friendly gesture  – while I was negotiating that turn from Moriches Road heading  west on 25A – the one without a turn signal.  That driver’s ‘acknowledgement’ was so enthusiastic, I am considering holding on to the tags for sentimental reasons.

I looked to G G for her opinion. She looked up from her iPad with a blank stare on her face and asked again, “So, who is he?”

Ok, I thought. Why should I seriously expect a teenager to recognize the name Jerry Lewis? Come to think of it, can I really expect anyone under the age of 30 to remember? They missed all of it.

“Jerry Lewis was a comedian, an actor and a super hero to kids all over the world - especially to those who suffered from Muscular Dystrophy.”

“Oh, Uncle Jay,” she whispered as she swiped the screen. 

“Listen to me…. Every Labor day, since the fifties Jerry (Lewis) hosted a super fundraiser called the Jerry Lewis telethon - to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association…” 

G G   rolled her eyes, half listening. I went on anyway to tell her all about that once famous telethon that no longer exists.  

“I can google it, Mema.”

“Well, Google can’t tell it like I can.”

As briefly as possible, I told her that Jerry Lewis, the father of the MDA telethon, was once idolized for his comedy and his devotion to his kids who suffered from this deadly disease. He and the telethon raised millions of dollars to support research and the families of ‘Jerry’s kids.’

In the beginning, the telethon was aired nationally, straight through the Labor Day weekend. Jerry Lewis entertained and pulled at viewers heartstrings.  His show presented cameos featuring the plights of the patients and their families, while Jerry passionately pleaded for listeners to pick up the phones and make a pledge.  Almost everyone who faithfully watched the show, made a pledge -  even if they couldn’t contribute much.

There were several centers around the country where volunteers took calls and processed the pledges as they came in. One such center was located in Hauppauge at the Sheraton hotel – right on the Vanderbilt parkway. 

The telethon meant so much to me and my family. It brought to the public eye, all the wonderful assistance MDA gave to victims of 40 different neuromuscular diseases including ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).The show demonstrated how difficult it was for patients and families to cope with just the daily routines. Jerry Lewis would beg viewers for funding to supply medical services, support groups and summer camp that gave respite for the families of ‘his kids’. We were one of those families.

We’d arrive at the call center on a Sunday afternoon after personally canvassing the neighborhood for donations. After turning in our collection packets, we’d work the phones in shifts through the night and all through Labor Day. Periodically - just when we were about to collapse, the tote board would display the local and national pledge amounts. This released an exponential burst of energy that would rally everyone in the room. In seconds all the volunteers were enthusiastically answering the calls.

“Good evening, Jerry Lewis Telethon…” 

Some donors would call in their pledges in the middle of the night to ‘talk’ and sometimes offer consolation to those volunteers who had kids with the disease. Some callers set challenging conditions.  One woman pledged five thousand dollars, If she could speak to Jerry Lewis.  Since Jerry Lewis was in Las Vegas and we were in Hauppauge, we ran all around the call center looking for our in-house Jerry Lewis impersonator:

“Hello, Ladeee…?”  Our man schmoozed the caller with wise cracks and shtick. It worked. Ladeee followed through with a check for the full amount - all because of that conversation with ‘Jerry’. 

We worked the telethon for 30 years, until MDA headquarters changed the venue. The old format wasn’t working well.  Jerry Lewis’ health was failing and people were not calling in or watching telethon anymore. The system had to be updated and streamlined.  Today, G G can contribute on her iPad - instantly. But what the fundraiser gained in efficiency, It lost in spirit – no longer providing that special ‘personal touch’ that Jerry and his Love Network, brought to all on Telethon weekend.  

While MDA operates with less hoopla today, it now receives support through social networking, ads and large corporations that operate their own fundraising activities.  One such entity has been the US Post Office, a long time friend to Jerry’s kids. 

A few weeks before Labor Day, local  post offices all over the country  run their own fundraisers, quietly seeking donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association,  enabling their patrons to continue Jerry’s mission and ultimately find a cure. 

“Can I donate?” GG WAS listening.

“Sure, but what do you think about my license plates? Should I keep 4JRYSKDS or get new ones?”

“Keep them, but you should change one letter.”

“What one?”

“Change  the S to a Z. I thought 4JRYSKDS meant ‘For Jersey kids.”

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why that truck driver waved at me the way he did. He had Jersey plates. 

June Capossela Kempf: Author: Yo God! Jay’s Story and Lady of the Dollhouse traditionally published by Keithpublications www.