Queer comedians are bringing much needed laughter and relief to Sonoma County for a good cause at the beginning of the New Year. They are raising money to support the temporary needs and rebuilding of the only nonprofit school for children with autism and other learning disabilities in the county.
The Tubbs fire that ripped through the North Bay wine region this past October destroyed the Anova Center for Education‘s Santa Rosa campus. According to the education center, about nine of its 125 students from ages 5 to 22 also lost their homes to the fire.
Within three weeks of the fire, Anova administrators were able to return the Santa Rosa campus students back to the classroom due to assistance from the Bennett Valley School District and the city of Healdsburg, which are both leasing classroom space to the center. They expect to remain in the three rented locations for several months until their school can be rebuilt.
To assist the educational center’s rebuilding effort, lesbian Laugh Cellar owner Lisa Pidge has pulled together a stellar lineup of comedians for the benefit show this Saturday, January 6, at the 120-seat comedy club in Santa Rosa. The bill includes Jennie McNulty, Ronn Vigh and Irene Tu.
Pidge was inspired to produce the fundraiser for the school because she and Grace Villafuerte, a lesbian who is hosting the comedy event, had friends whose children went to the school.
“[It’s] kind of difficult for kids with autism to make that move,” said Pidge, 48, who opened the Laugh Cellar in July nearly two years after launching Crushers of Comedy, which was a circulating comedy club in Sonoma County, with her wife, Carlee Pidge.
Villafuerte wasn’t available for comment, but McNulty, who is traveling from Los Angeles to headline the benefit, is excited to perform in Sonoma along with Vigh and Tu, who are from San Francisco.
“It’s just heart-wrenching,” McNulty said of the destruction the Anova Center suffered, adding that the local community’s rallying to assist it is “very cool.”
In early December, Naked Wines donated $500,000 toward rebuilding the school and pledged to offer its continuing support. Another $170,412 has come through a Go Fund Me campaign aiming to raise $475,000 for the school.
“The Anova organization suffered tragically from the wildfires and we were honored to be the ones to step in and help in their time of need,” wrote Cari Roberts, head of acquisitions at Naked Wines, in an email to The Seattle Lesbian.
The winery’s entire staff and many customers expressed a desire to help their neighbors who were victims of the fires not only recover, but rebuild. Anova fit their vision of the best way to help the community, explained Roberts.
“What better way to help rebuild a community than to invest in the children of that community and their education?” asked Roberts.
Leaders of Anova, which opened in 2000 and also has a campus in the East Bay city of Concord, have been awed by the support they have received from the community. Andrew Bailey, co-founder of Anova, expressed his gratitude for the community’s support for the school to the GTR.
The father of a lesbian, Bailey is looking forward to the comedy benefit along with his staff. Quoting Oscar Wilde, he said, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”
“Having comedians joking around and helping by making people laugh is completely appropriate and I’m eternally grateful,” he said, noting that it isn’t so much the money being raised, but “the feeling that people care.”
Located in the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, the school was housed in the only section of the building that was destroyed by the fire. Anova is working to raise $1 million to replace teaching equipment and supplies as well as vans to transport students to the school.
Bailey said the school plans to move into temporary trailers along with space inside the building created by the art center to resume operation by the end of January. However, he anticipates a long journey before the school will be back to normal, if not better than it was before the fire.
Half of the proceeds from ticket sales for the queer comedy show will benefit the school’s rebuilding effort, which it has dubbed its Phoenix Campaign. Funds will also be raised through beer and wine sales from the bar that night and through a silent auction. Attendees will be able to bid on wines from local wineries, restaurants, hotels, and comedy classes and shows, along with other items.
“We have a lot of great prizes,” said Pidge, who hopes to raise several thousand dollars for Anova.
The comedy benefit, noted Pidge, is the first of several events and dance parties to raise money for the school that Grace will be hosting in January.
The Laugh Cellar is located at 5755 Mountain Hawk in Santa Rosa. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the comedy show begins at 7 p.m. The dance party will take place from 8:30 to 11 p.m.