March 6, 2009

  Tough economic times are even tougher on charities. The need for services rises, but donations shrink. If any organization can buck that trend, it’s Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis. “I cautiously brought up the economy when I was talking to one of our donors the other day,” recalls executive director Jan Albus. “She looked at me and said, ‘Some things are urgent, others can wait. Children who need our help can’t wait.’”

    Commitment to community service will be celebrated at Variety’s 43rd annual ‘Dinner With the Stars,’ a black-tie benefit. Singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson will headline the gala on Saturday, April 25, at the Chase Park Plaza. Variety board president David Steward will host.

    For 77 years, Variety has served children who suffer from physical and mental disabilities, providing medical equipment, support services, developmental programs and recreational activities. The organization has 50 chapters in 14 countries, “but the St. Louis branch is recognized as an international leader, raising more than $3 million annually to help thousands of local kids and their families,” Albus explains. “These are the kids who need it most, the ones who usually fall through the cracks because they don’t qualify for Medicaid, don’t have insurance or don’t have enough insurance.”

    ‘Dinner With the Stars’ is Variety’s major fund-raising event. “In ’07, the event raised more than $800,000; last year, we raised more than a million dollars,” Albus says. “That’s proof of the dedication of our chair, Marilyn Fox, who’s been with us for 11 years, and it’s proof of Variety’s long, strong friendships in St. Louis.”

    A highlight of the gala is the presentation of the Variety Man and Woman of the Year Awards. This year’s honorees are Hugh Grant, chairman of Monsanto, and Marsha Rusnack, an advocate of the arts in education. “Both of them are a big hit with our Variety children, and both are respected for their solid, far-reaching work in philanthropy and community service,” Albus says.

    The gala is the grand finale of Variety Week, a series of events and fund-raising activities that include a parade downtown and a fashion show at the Chase. The event is held in conjunction with a prime-time telethon on KMOV-TV, hosted by Allan Cohen, KMOV’s general manager. “We are the only Variety telethon in the country that doesn’t have to pay for airtime, thanks to KMOV,” Albus says. Steve Schankman, head of Contemporary Productions, acts as entertainment chair. His band, the Motown Revue, will provide music at the dinner’s after-party. “Both of them are on our board,” she notes. “Their help, and the help of other generous St. Louisans, allows us to put more energy and resources into raising money.”

    And every cent, she adds, stays in the Greater St. Louis region. “What’s more, watchdog organizations such as Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau consistently give us the highest marks for financial stability and percentage of money that actually goes toward helping kids.”

    Will St. Louisans open their hearts and wallets despite a tough economy? “It wouldn’t be the first time, Variety started during the Great Depression,” she says. “Everyone’s hurting now, but those who need our services are the most vulnerable. The mantra of our kids is ‘I can’ that’s what it says on their Variety T-shirts. We must have the exact same attitude. We can do our best for them, even during hard times.”