Mini Crusaders Fighting Cancer One Joke at a Time
It all started during a rainy day recess at Roaring Brook Elementary School last year. Max Chwatko and Alex Travin, two third grade classmates were looking for a way to entertain themselves and at the same time help Scarlett, Max’s younger sister who was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. The enterprising duo blessed with comedic talent and a dose of creativity set up a sign in the back of the classroom and wrote “Jokes for Scarlett” on it.
In the beginning they told free jokes but eventually decided to charge for them. Alex humbly noted that “the jokes weren’t that good” but they had managed to secure an eager audience of other third graders and word quickly spread about their venture. The next day when they were stuck inside again for rainy recess, other third graders began bringing in their allowance money in order to hear a funny joke from these mini comedians and help out Scarlett.
The boys were encouraged by the generosity of their classmates and wanted all of the joke funds to go directly to pediatric brain cancer research. They also wanted to expand their audience beyond the students of Roaring Brook and started to tell people that they would set up a booth at the Chappaqua Farmer’s Market.
Initially the boys kept their project a secret from their parents. But word spreads quickly in this small town and people started asking Max’s mom, Robin, when her son would be at the farmer’s market telling jokes. “I had no idea what they were talking about.”
Once their moms heard about their son’s altruistic intentions, they pitched in to turn the comedic duo’s dream into a reality. First they set up a meeting to rename the project. Westchester Jesters and Two Stooges were in the running but eventually they decided on the moniker Comedy Kids.
Next the moms, Robin Chwatko and Alonna Travin, worked on securing a spot at the Farmers Market and developing a website www.comedykids.org. The boys began to put posters up around town and tell all their friends about their upcoming appearance. They also told jokes each morning during their school’s morning announcements to remind their schoolmates to come out and support the cause.
Humor Helps in the Classroom and in the Hospital
Humor played a very special role in their third grade classroom even prior to the establishment of Comedy Kids. While most third grade classroom jobs are a bit mundane (e.g., line leader, attendance), their teacher, Mr. David Forsberg, created one of the most coveted jobs–classroom joke teller. Each day during morning meeting, a student gets to pick a joke out of a joke box and tell it to their classmates. It’s no secret that humor can help break up the monotony of a school day and provide a sense of levity to the classroom.
Humor also helped Max when his sister was undergoing treatment at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. His mom would place jokes inside his lunch box to help cheer him up and the nurses outside of Scarlett’s room created a joke box so that they could lift her spirits too when she was in isolation while undergoing treatment. “My grandpa is also a very funny guy,” notes Max. Alex and Max create many of their jokes but Max admits that “some are from joke books or the Internet.”
“I’m proud that we are inspiring people and raising money to do experiments that find a cure. It would be great if scientists could find a pill instead of people doing radiation,” noted Max.
Farmers Market Event Raises Profile of Comedy Kids
Last November, the duo set up shop at the Farmers Market. In exchange for a joke, each person who came to their booth was asked to make a donation. The average donation that day was $20 and select visitors even got a pair of Groucho Marx glasses. News 12 Westchester came and shot a segment on them and the duo received thousands of dollars of donations via their website from friends and family around the country with all the funds going to pediatric brain cancer research.
The News 12 segment helped the Comedy Kids become Helping Others Persevere and Excel (HOPE) Week honorees. HOPE Week is an annual program run by the New York Yankees that celebrates individuals, families, or organizations worthy of support. A PR representative from the NY Yankees happened to watch the segment and asked them to be HOPE Week honorees. As part of HOPE Week, the NY Yankees donated $10,000 to pediatric brain cancer research this past May. To date, Comedy Kids has raised more than $33,000 with funds going to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund and A Kids’ Brain Tumor Cure.
Surprises in Store for the Comedy Kids
While the boys had kept their “Jokes for Scarlett” project under wraps from their parents, this time it was Max and Alex’s parents turn to keep what being a HOPE Week honoree entailed and the surprises that were in store for them.
A car service came to pick up the boys in Chappaqua along with their families on May 24th. The only thing that the boys were told was that they were HOPE Week honorees and would get to attend the Yankees game that night but what ensued was a whirlwind day of activities full of fun adventures.
The boys were invited to the sets of Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. On the Saturday Night Live set, the boys had the chance to meet several Yankee players and exchange jokes. “Aaron Judge is really tall and funny,” quips Alex. After a joke swap, the boys ate lunch with the Yankees and their families.
Next up, the boys were whisked away to meet Jimmy Fallon and share jokes with him. They got to sit in his chair, tell jokes on stage and give Fallon bunny ears. “There is a secret door right by Jimmy Fallon’s desk and that’s what he comes out of and it looks just like the wall,” reveals Alex.
Their final stop was Yankee Stadium where they got VIP treatment including watching batting practice, sitting in the dugout and receiving autographed baseballs. That night the boys were honored with throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium against the Kansas City Royals. “Not a lot of people get to throw the first pitch at the Yankees game. Not even all of the presidents have done it,” exclaimed Alex. The day culminated with a Yankees victory and the Comedy Kids getting to high-five the team. It was a dream come true for these baseball-loving boys. “They repeatedly said it was amazing and awesome. The next day, they had a hero’s welcome at school,” said Robin, Max’s mother.
“I was impressed by the ingenuity and selflessness of Max Chwatko and Alex Travin. These young boys did not create Comedy Kids to be noticed, they created Comedy Kids because they genuinely wanted to do something meaningful to help Max’s sister. Their compassion, generosity of spirit, and philanthropic efforts are a model for others to emulate,” noted former Roaring Brook Principal Amy Fishkin.
Echoing Fishkin’s remarks, Alex’s mom Alonna Travin expressed her desire to “raise good people who care about others and the world and want to make a difference even if it’s big or small. Starting Comedy Kids and helping understand what it is doing to raise money for important cancer research, I’m kvelling (Yiddish for bursting with pride). Not only has he listened to the things that my husband David and I have taught him about being a good person but he’s actually figured out as a 9-year-old boy a way that he can carry this out.”
Next Up for the Comedy Kids
The Comedy Kids are now encouraging other children across the country to raise funds for causes they believe in even if they aren’t related to childhood cancer. On their website, children can receive a free kit which includes joke cards, two T-shirts and Groucho Marx glasses. They also provide suggestions on how to coordinate a successful event, spread the word and secure media coverage. They’ve already received orders from New Jersey, Texas and Hawaii.
This past summer the Comedy Kids werealso busy planning a fundraising event at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. While the event is still in the preliminary stages, they hope to secure Boston-area comedians and continue to raise funds for pediatric brain cancer.
“Every fundraiser, big or small, has a crucial impact on funding cancer research and patient care. It’s amazing that these two young boys have dedicated so much time, energy, zest, and humor to helping cure cancer at such a young age,” commented Katherine Bahrawy, the Development Officer of Special Events at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund.
Surmising on career aspirations, the duo is unsure if they want to actually become comedians. But for now, they just like to make people laugh and raise funds. As Alex reminds us all: “Laughter really is the best medicine.”
Jokes Galore: A Sampling of Favorites from the Comedy Kids
Q: Why did the water jump into the river?
A: He wanted to be a watermelon.
Q: Why are baseball players so rich?
A: Because they play on diamonds.
Q: How do you make a hot dog stand?
A: Take away its chair.
Q: Why do gorillas have big nostrils?
A: They have big fingers.
Q: What do you call a mean cow?
A: Beef jerky!
Max: Monty Python, Peter Sellars, Jimmy Fallon, Jerry Seinfeld and his grandfather
Alex: Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, Tim Conway and Nick Krol