MDA Telethon Returning, Going Virtual With Host Kevin Hart

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by Hawken Miller |

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MDA Telethon host Kevin Hart

Kevin Hart (Photo by Smallz & Raskind)

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The Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon returns this month after a six-year absence, with actor Kevin Hart hosting the virtual event.

The two-hour MDA Kevin Hart Kids Telethon, set for Oct. 24 at 8 p.m. (ET), will stream live on the Laugh Out Loud Network and its YouTube platform.

Fundraising before, during, and after the telethon will benefit both the MDA and Hart’s nonprofit charity — Help From the Hart — established in 2017 to support organizations aiding underserved communities, provide scholarships for education and vocational training, and, though a partnership with BrittiCares International, to help children with cancer.

Money raised at the event will go to the MDA to further its mission of providing quality care and a better life for people with neuromuscular conditions, and supporting research. Donations can also be made to Help From the Hart.

“This is an incredible opportunity to bring the work of Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association forward. I’m honored to collaborate with MDA and my organization, to educate and entertain the public about the need to support people with disabilities and disadvantages, because we are all in this together,” Hart said in a press release.

“I can’t wait to have an incredible night for two critically important causes that are in urgent need of funding and hope.”

Pre-telethon activities include online games though the MDA Let’s Play gaming platform, and culminate with a 10-hour Let’s Play For A Cure session on telethon day, starting at 2 p.m.

Kevin Hart (Photo by Smallz & Raskind)

When the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon first started in the mid-1960s, it was aired on one of the four television channels then available.

Families made a habit of sitting around the TV on Labor Day weekend and thinking about ways to help others, said Lynn O’Connor Vos, the MDA’s president and CEO. Now the medium is different, but the message of giving back remains. 

“That’s what resonated with Kevin and all of his network to do it in a digital age,” O’Connor Vos told Muscular Dystrophy News by telephone. “He’s an incredible human being.”

The MDA Kevin Hart Kids Telethon was also a chance for MDA to experiment with virtual fundraising, using the foundation of the old Jerry Lewis telethon and adding relevant digital components. 

“It became pretty obvious,” O’Connor Vos said. “Why wouldn’t we reinvent and reimagine a telethon in 2020?”

A car accident and the serious back injuries it caused changed Hart’s life in September 2019, and he struggled to regain his health.

“I’ve got a completely different look on life now,” Hart told TV host Ellen DeGeneres during a December interview, nearly three months after his back surgery. “A much better one.”

His vision of helping others was among the reasons he decided to host the new telethon, O’Connor Vos said.  

Jack Black (Photo courtesy of the MDA)

Hart will be joined by celebrities like Bryan Cranston, DJ Khaled, Robin Thicke, Jack Black, and Usain Bolt at the telethon. Following the main event, an extended one-hour show will be hosted by entertainment TV journalists Nancy O’Dell and Jann Carl. 

Hart will not receiving any compensation for hosting the event, but his production company, Heartbeat Productions, will. 

Like the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, this event runs for a set time. But there will be extra hours of content, including the Let’s Play for a Cure streamathon, featuring DJ and producer Zedd, the gaming personality missharvey, and esports athletes.

This telethon follows in the footsteps of what Jerry Lewis did over his 54 years of hosting telethons for MDA. Nearly $2 billion in donations were collected in Labor Day telethons that began in 1966. Between Lewis’ retirement in 2011 and 2015, when a decision was made to end the telethon, the MDA shortened programming from 21 hours to two hours.

A virtual telethon is a new frontier for fundraising in the nonprofit world. Galas and in-person events typically raise most money for charities, but COVID-19 has forced many groups, like the MDA, to pivot. To continue its mission “to transform the lives of people affected by neuromuscular disease,” O’Connor Vos said these kinds of virtual events can make for a more intimate experience and give better insights into consumer behavior. 

“Having this big event, taking the leap, experimenting, being innovative in a crisis … is what you have to do in order to save the mission,” she said. 

The MDA Kevin Hart Kids Telethon isn’t the only event the charity is running this year. Its 66-year Fill the Boot campaign, in collaboration with the International Association of Firefighters, also turned virtual. The MDA continues to partner with Harley Davidson and their owners’ group to run money-raising activities.  

For a first time, the MDA also hosted its neuromuscular summer camp for children online. O’Connor Vos called it eye-opening for her to learn how many people weren’t able to attend the camp before the pandemic.  

With the money raised from the telethon, MDA is hoping to expand its clinics across the U.S., and add to its MOVR database, which collects depersonalized medical and genomic data to help scientists working to better understand these diseases and to develop new treatments. 

Ideas for ways of supporting the MDA Kevin Hart Kids Telethon, from organizing teams to setting up watch parties, can be found here.