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Reach Out and Touch Someone
At this special time of year, Jim Hill turns the spotlight on an organization that does special things all year 'round: Famous Fone Friends
You know, it would be so easy to write a story that bashes the Walt Disney Company right about now.
I mean, think about it. Has there ever been a time in this corporation's entire history when there were so many tempting targets to choose from? The Disney Stores continue to suffer from soft sales. The company's newest theme park -- California Adventure -- appears to be off to a slow start. Both the Walt Disney World Resort as well as the Disney Cruise Line are said to be having trouble convincing tourists to book trips for this fall. ABC could certainly use a few new hit shows. And don't even get me started on the 4000 loyal, long-term Disney Company employees would could lose their jobs over the next few weeks.
And yet ... I look up at the calendar and notice that we're in the middle of the eight days of Passover and just hours away from the start of Easter. And then I think: "This probably isn't a good time to be bashing the Mouse. Or to be thinking about bashing anything, for that matter."
This short span of days toward the start of spring is usually a time for reflection and compassion. A time when we should take a moment to look beyond our petty self interests and give some semi-serious thought to the bigger picture. That there is really more to life than fretting about theme park attractions and soon-to-be-released feature length cartoons.
That's why I'm so happy that are folks out there like the Famous Fone Friends. This is a non-profit organization that's run by people who really seem to have their heads on straight. They're not out to do something impossible -- like try and save the world. They just want to make a few sick kids happy.
What?! You're never heard of the Famous Fone Friends? Well, given that this organization likes operating below the radar, deliberately avoiding most publicity, I guess it's possible that you've never heard of these guys.
Well, maybe you've heard about how a seriously ill child -- clear out of the blue -- got a phone call from a celebrity or their favorite cartoon character. Well, that's what the folks at Famous Fone Friends do. Help the friends, family and medical staff treating these children make the proper connections. So that these kids -- amid all the horrors of hospitalization -- can have a few moments of happiness by chatting with a famous friend.
I guess it wouldn't surprise you to learn that a lot of folks who work for the Walt Disney Company have played a very active role in Famous Fone Friends ever since the organization started making arrangements for calls like this back in 1986. Among the people who have happily contributed their time & talents are voice actors Wayne Allwine (the official voice of Mickey Mouse), Russi Taylor (the official voice of Minnie), Bill Farmer (the official voice of Goofy & Pluto) and Tony Anselmo (the official voice of Donald Duck).
I should point out here that these folks donate all of their services to Famous Fone Friends. They don't get paid a single cent to talk with seriously ill children. These talented performers do this all on their own time, out of the goodness of their hearts.
What's even more remarkable is that the Walt Disney Company -- renown for its iron-fisted control over its characters -- tends to look the other way whenever these folks make these phone calls. In spite of its overly aggressive image, the Disney corporation doesn't insist on being compensated for the use of Mickey, Minnie et al in this particular situation. If it's really being done to entertain a seriously ill child, then the Mouse doesn't want a dime.
Who'd have thought it? The suits that run the Walt Disney Company actually do have hearts.
By the way, if a sick child isn't necessarily a Mickey & Co. fan, that's okay. There's lots of other talented performers who voice Disney characters who happily donate their services to Famous Fone Friends. Among these are Scott Weinger (the official voice of the title character from "Aladdin"), Linda Larkin (the official voice of Princess Jasmine from "Aladdin"), Paige O'Hara (the official voice of Belle from "Beauty & the Beast"), Jodie Benson (the official voice of Ariel from "The Little Mermaid"), Jim Cummings (the official voice of Winnie the Pooh) and Robin Williams (the voice of the Genie from "Aladdin").
So what is a seriously ill child isn't a Disney fan? No problem. The vocal talents behind the industry's other top toons also take part in Famous Fone Friends. Among them are Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson), Jesse Harnell & Rob Paulsen (the voices of Yakko & Wacko Warner from "Animaniacs"), Lorenzo Music (the official voice of Garfield the Cat) as well as June Foray (the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel).
Celebrities and sports figures also gladly lend their voices to Famous Fone Friends. Among the performers who have -- totally out of the spotlight -- taken time out of their busy schedules to entertain ill children are actors John Stamos, Henry Winkler, Courtney Cox and Mark Harmon, talkmeisters Jay Leno and Rosie O'Donnell as well as athletes Karl Malone, Joe Montana and Scott Hamilton.
So what do these people say to the kids? Well, each individual performer approaches his Famous Fone Friends duty in a different way. For example, Robin Williams once had such a great time talking with a hospitalized child on the phone that he invited the kid out to his home to play pool. The late Jim Varney (AKA Ernest P. Worell) used to love to dress up in his character's costume, then barge into a serious ill child's room carrying a tool kit and a ladder. Pretending to be the hospital janitor, Varney would create all sorts of havoc (as well as lots of laughter for that sick kid) as Ernest labored to change a light bulb.
Personally, this is the part of all this Famous Fone Friends experience that fascinates me: What must it be like for one of these athletes or performers to reach out and try to make a meaningful connection with a seriously ill child?