10 years and a whole lot of laughs later: LaughFest celebrates a milestone

On a sunny afternoon in February, the community rooms at Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids are alight with laughter. In one room near a fireplace, a women’s knitting group shares stories and coffee while other visitors bustle through hallways on their way to weekly meetups. President Wendy Wigger herself is all smiles as she prepares for a Rapid Growth Media interview about the 10th anniversary of a festival that has generated over $2 million in proceeds for the nonprofit, and facilitated open and honest conversation, community support, and above all, laughter when patients and their families need it most.

Founded in 2001, Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids is a 501(c)(3) that “provides free emotional healthcare to children, adults, families, and friends on any kind of cancer journey or those grieving the death of someone in their life due to any cause.” At their clubhouses on Bridge St. NW in Grand Rapids and on South Hudson Street in Lowell, Gilda’s Club staff and volunteers tackle tough topics to support patients and family members on their journeys of health, sickness, and grief.

Each year, Gilda’s Club serves over 10,000 people at their clubhouses, and throughout the West Michigan community. And with programs like Camp Sparkle, for children impacted by grief, or Sister to Sister, a support group primarily for women of color affected by breast cancer, this nonprofit is serious business. So where does laughter fit in?

“Probably one of the most heard emotions here at Gilda’s Club is laughter,” says Wigger. Though cancer and grief support can yield a variety of emotions, it’s the joy of community that the nonprofit wants to talk about the most. This idea is at the core of Gilda’s Club’s principle fundraiser: LaughFest.

“There is no easy way to raise money for a nonprofit,” says Wigger, especially for causes that are difficult to discuss. To celebrate the nonprofit’s 10-year anniversary in 2011 and to diversify their revenue stream, Gilda’s Club staff sought to create a new kind of fundraiser that would raise awareness for the sometimes quiet services they provide.

“We are the kind of organization that you don't really want to think about unless you need us,” says Wigger. “When your mission is emotional health support or cancer and grief, in some ways we are a best-kept secret.”

Deciding on a series of events that would focus on positivity and open conversation, Gilda’s staff founded the nation’s first-ever community-wide festival of laughter in March 2011. “There are easier ways [to raise money] than doing a 10-day festival … but there's no better way to raise visibility of who we are and what we do and get people to talk about all emotions than what LaughFest has done for this community,” she adds. 

And over the past nine years, LaughFest has stunned the community with the sheer variety of acts that they have welcomed to Grand Rapids, including Betty White, Wayne Brady, Lily Tomlin, Gabriel Iglesias, Jay Leno, and more. Since that very first year, LaughFest has included a large diversity of performances, everything from traditional stand-ups to music and theatre, improv and sketch comedy to film. The festival also welcomes children and families to many events like their Super Saturday Kids Zone and the Rock Hip Hop Dance Party — which is why their rating system is a vital part of their programming. 

Betty White at Gildas Club

“We may not laugh at the same things, but we all do laugh,” says Wigger.  “If you’ve looked at the LaughFest schedule and you haven’t found something that really you can connect with, you just haven’t looked hard enough.”

Orny AdamsOf course, in a digital age that produces a glut of programming on everything from traditional networks to streaming services and YouTube, Wigger encourages each audience member to discern their chosen show based on their individual taste. "We always recommend that people do a little research on the show or the artist that they’re going to see,” she says. (Especially for the ATG: Anything Goes-rated shows).

And though LaughFest isn't their only fundraiser — Gilda’s Club hosts a variety of community events that include an annual motorcycle ride from Muskegon to Grand Rapids featuring over 100 retired police and fire officials — the now 10-year-old comedy festival is by far the most visible. This visibility and access for all is at the heart of the nonprofit's mission to talk openly and honestly about some of the toughest moments in a grief or cancer journey. 

“[We are always] elevating the conversation around the importance of emotional health,” says Wigger. Part of this elevation is evolution, says Wigger, allowing the festival to grow and change as participants experience each performance and community event.

“I think we had a vision for what we wanted LaughFest to be, and to be here 10 years later having seen a lot of those vision elements come to fruition, and have a festival that over nine years has generated over $2 million in proceeds that help support our free program of cancer and grief is just amazing,” she says.

With the festival's growth over the past decade, some programs come, others go, and even more return, like a world record attempt, this year aiming to gather the most people wearing mismatched socks. And that is seriously funny.

For a full list of this year's programming, visit Laughfestgr.org/events.

Photos courtesy LaughFest.
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