Laugh 4 Life raises money for cancer research
Words by Mary Alayne B. Long
Back in 2015, Kent Oliver was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. For those of you who don’t know—and don’t feel bad, I didn’t know either—multiple myeloma is a blood cancer that develops in the bone marrow where normal blood cells grow. In healthy bone marrow, there are normal plasma cells that make antibodies which are designed to protect your body from infection. In multiple myeloma, those plasma cells are transformed into cancerous cells which then grow out of control. Those cells can activate other cells in the bone marrow and can cause damage to bones. As daunting as that may sound, Kent didn’t let that get him down. Not one little bit.
During his treatment, he spent a great deal of time in isolation. He and his wife Candace have two young daughters, Annie and Charlotte, and they called themselves fortunate indeed to have a great friend in Brady Raanes who stepped in and helped care for Kent. They spent a lot of time together in those days of healing, and one thing became clear. They all saw a need in the community to find ways to help others who might be facing the same hurdles. After a stem cell transplant in 2016 and far too many days sitting alone thinking about life, Kent came up with the idea for Laughs 4 Life.
“When Brady and I would sit together, no matter how awful I felt, we’d still laugh. It made me realize there had been a void in my life that was normally filled with laughter, and I wanted to do something to help others who might be in my same shoes. I wanted to find a way to bring laughter to the community, and a comedy event just made sense.”
While you might think a small town such as Hattiesburg, Mississippi, isn’t the place big stars regularly visit—you’d be wrong. This event in particular has harnessed some of comedy’s biggest names over the last few years, and the events regularly sell out in a matter of minutes. The historic Hattiesburg Saenger Theatre plays host each year and provides the perfect backdrop for evenings filled with laughter, joy, and hope.
At the inaugural event, well-known comedian Bill Engvall took the stage, and it didn’t take long for everyone to realize the success of the evening. The whole town knew right away that this event would be around for many years to come. Since that time, the throngs of supporters have been entertained by comedy greats such as Tig Notaro, Frank Caliendo, Nate Bargatze, and Leanne Morgan, just to name a few. Leanne was back again this year—she brought the house down, by the way—and she was joined by two other original Southerners—Keith Alberstadt and James Austin Johnson. You may recognize James as the current Saturday Night Live cast member who’s the face of both former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden—now that’s talent! I’ve been fortunate to attend the last two Laughs 4 Life events in Hattiesburg, and I can speak firsthand about how wonderful they are. The entire community rallies around this event and comes together to raise funds for such a worthy cause, and it’s a delight to see it in person.
Laughs 4 Life also partners with the International Myeloma Foundation (IMF), Forrest General Cancer Center, and Children’s of Mississippi. They’ve been able to fund a grant with IMF each year since they began, and they’re currently in the process of creating a “smile room” at Children’s—the only pediatric hospital in Mississippi. Through a combined effort with the child life specialists design team, they’ve been able to create a modern and joyful space for families who spend far more time there than anyone should.
They also recently purchased an EKG machine for the local cancer center, and while that might not seem like a big deal to you, it’s a huge deal for someone who’s sick and doesn’t have to schedule yet another appointment in another place across town. Patients in need of an electrocardiogram can now have those tests done on the same day as their normal visit to the center. That makes a big difference to someone who’s fighting cancer.
Laughs 4 Life even has their own mural where folks can stop to snap a pic. They worked in conjunction with the Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art on the hand-painted and sculpted mural that was designed by River Prince. It was important to Kent that a physical smile be a part of the mural, and it creates a perfect backdrop for residents and visitors alike to showcase their happiness through photos.
I asked Kent what his goals were for this event and the fundraising efforts as they continue to move forward, and he told me: “We’re really proud of this event and this entire community with the way they’ve come together to support our work. We want to build on this brand and continue making a big impact for the people we want to help.”
From what I’ve seen, I have no doubt they will be successful.