Sunday, August 17, 2008
G.W. Bailey and the Sunshine Kids
G.W. Bailey: “One smile now is worth a million tears that you may have to shed in the future.”
You might not recognize his name, but as soon as you hear his voice or see his picture, you'll know exactly who this talented actor is. Perhaps you know him from his most famous role as Lieutenant Harris in the famous and hilarious Police Academy films. Or you may know him as Sgt. Rizzo on M*A*S*H (one of my favorite sitcoms ever), or perhaps you’re watching him in his most recent role as Det. Lt. Provenza on The Closer or you’ve seen him in one of the numerous other television shows and movies that he’s been in throughout his long acting career.
What you may not know is for more than two decades, G.W. Bailey has also been part of the “Sunshine Kids” organization, an organization dedicated to helping children with cancer by providing them with exciting, positive group activities, so they can do what kids are supposed to do -- have fun! And it all started because of his goddaughter, Brandy Aldridge.
At 12 years old, Brandy was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia -- a combination of both Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), which is a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow and Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the white blood cells that fight infections. Suffering with her disease was bad enough, but Brandy suffered from isolation. While her healthy teenaged friends were in school, the mall and out and about with friends, Brandy couldn’t go out or could only go with a mask so she didn’t risk infection. Brandy, thanks to a fortunate set of circumstances, was invited on a Sunshine Kids trip, before G.W.’s involvement with the organization. It changed her life.
G.W.: It completely changed her and how she approached her disease. She made friends and really came out of her shell. It was fantastic to watch and we were very close, so she sent me a tape of an ABC sports special on the trip and I was so amazed and inspired by it. When they had a summer trip just for families, she asked me to come to it -- I was her quasi-famous B-movie star uncle because of Police Academy. So I said “Ok, I can only come for a day, I’m so busy.” And I went for the day, and that’s about 24 years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
What happened that day?
G.W.: The trip was in Colorado and when I got there, they were at the volunteer fire department. The fire department was doing a big party for them and I walked in. I had seen Brandy with cancer and been to the hospital and seen a few other kids with cancer, but I’d never seen 30 kids with cancer all in one place. Quite frankly, I turned around, I was there about three or four minutes, and I turned around and went back to my car, and cried. The impact of seeing all those kids cut up and bald, you know, going through what they were going through, and then having such a fabulous time, it just amazed me.
G.W. was so amazed that after the event he flew to Houston to meet with the founder of the organization, Rhoda Tomasco, who was working as a volunteer in the pediatric cancer unit of a hospital in Houston, Texas when she started the group. G.W. wanted to help to replicate the program on a national scale.
G.W.: The power, to me, is having all these kids together. Rhoda allowed me to do a trip to Hollywood, California for them.
G.W. became a volunteer for the organization, helping to raise funds and organize trips for the children. Today, the Sunshine Kids have three branch offices, hold 12 national trips, and have an annual budget of more than $3 million dollars.
G.W.: And it all came from that little girl.
How do you get past the emotion of what you see?
G.W.: To be quite honest with you, sometimes I have a much greater problem with the suffering than I do with the death. I’ve been in hospitals and it’s just unbelievable what radiation has done to them. It’s medieval sometimes. It’s very difficult philosophically, spiritually, religiously, it’s very difficult for me to understand why anybody has to be in pain, especially a child.
We have a volunteer (Andy Sacks, a producer on The Closer) who, for the last few years has done magnificent work for us. The first time we lost a kid that Andy had gotten to know very well, he had a very tough time and he wouldn’t mind me talking about this, because it’s important for people to know what the process is. He had a very tough time. And he questioned, he actually questioned whether or not he could continue to do it. You know, he wasn’t sure that he was going to be able to continue working with kids like this.
I said to him, “Okay, take your grieving time and then you go back to the pictures you have, and you go to the website and look at those pictures, or you call Houston and have them send you some more pictures, whatever it takes. You get pictures of that boy, and you look at the smiles. And I know this sounds sort of sentimental and all that, but it all comes down to the smiles. That’s our job. Our job is to make sure whatever time we have with them, a week at a time, we have a continuing relationship, whatever it is, whatever it grows to be, it’s all based on quality of life, joy, and that is exemplified through smiles. If they’re smiling, that’s what matters. And if you helped bring that smile, that is so much bigger than your grief. One smile is worth a million tears that you may have to shed in the future.”
G.W. worked as a volunteer for 15 years and became Executive Director of the Sunshine Kids in 2001. Since creating the California Fun-Time Fantasy in 1988, he oversees the national events and works with hundreds of young cancer patients annually. How do you fit all of this in with your schedule?
G.W.: I still go on as many trips as I can, I meet as many kids as I can, but it’s ultimately my responsibility to oversee the organization, to make sure our strategic plan, as adopted by our board of directors, is carried out, that our employees are productive, and they have their own responsibilities that they’re meeting those responsibilities. I live, like anybody else in the business, I live on emails, fax machines, telephone, FedEx…So my job is to make sure that our activities reflect what our budget can offer, and we have a tremendous director of children’s activities who does that.
What can we do?
Contact our national office or one of our regional offices and they will put you in touch with a gentleman named Tank who will send a volunteer form that we have to have on record, an application-type thing. And then it becomes where you live exactly and if you are near a hospital that we work (The Sunshine Kids work with approximately 70 hospitals across the United States). If you’re not near one of our hospitals, you can send a donation.
I lost my husband to cancer (Hodgkin‘s disease), but can’t imagine losing a child…
G.W.: One of our greatest patrons and friends and supporters, while he was alive, was Brandon Tartikoff, who died of Hodgkin’s. And Brandon, of course, was President of NBC, and then he became President of Paramount. When you’re the favorite charity of a president of a studio magical things can happen and he was such a wonderful, wonderful man. Ironically, the last time I saw Brandon was in New Orleans. We were doing one of our two major trips to New Orleans, and I was at the airport waiting for the kids coming from L.A. My sidekick in the Police Academy movies was a character named Proctor and he was played by Lance Kinsey, who was on the plane with the kids. Back then, before 9/11, you would go to the runway and wait for those kids to come off the plane.
They were slow to get off the plane and we had a jazz band playing for them. At that time Brandon was coming off the plane with his lovely wife and he was coming down the runway and he was very weak. We embraced when we saw each other, but as sick as he was he waited when he found out these kids were on the plane, so that he could meet them. He passed two weeks later.
Unfortunately, Brandy lost her battle to cancer when she was 17 years old. How do you think she would feel about the work you’ve done with the organization? Would she be surprised how involved you became?
G.W.: We lost her when she was 17 and she was not a shy kid in the least. She always wanted to make a statement. As a matter of fact, she left us on Christmas Eve and we figured she did that to make sure that we never forgot. Believe me, I’m not the only one that she inspired. There are many. There are many that she changed their lives, and had them focus more on what we do. What can I say, I was extraordinarily lucky to know her. That’s all there is to it. I was very, very fortunate to have her crossing my life.
For more information on the Sunshine Kids organization, visit www.sunshinekids.org. Please help by donating or volunteering your time to help out with one of the local or national trips that this organization sponsors.