Free to Laugh comedy event to raise money for Daughter ProjectWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2008, Jeff Wilbarger was given a book by his son-in-law called “Not for Sale,” written by abolitionist and ethics professor David Batstone. The book’s horrific tales of human sex trafficking and the victims who get trapped in what amounts to modern-day slavery had a profound impact on Wilbarger. He had only read the first few chapters of the book before coming to a decision — he had to help.
“That’s where I learned about how terrible the problem is — not only around the world, but here in the United States, and even more specifically, here in Northwest Ohio,” Wilbarger said in an interview with Toledo Free Press. “And at that time, I felt, well, I will go volunteer at a shelter to help girls with their education, because that’s what I’ve been trained to do, and I enjoy doing.
“I couldn’t find any shelters in Northwest Ohio, or Ohio, or Michigan or Indiana — there were only six homes at the time. So that’s what inspired me to say, ‘Well, we need to. We should have a home for girls like this.’”
Wilbarger’s drive led to the creation of The Daughter Project, an organization aimed at building and operating a home for young women rescued from sex traffickers. Thanks to an amazing outpouring of support from the community — businesses, individuals, hundreds of volunteers — a mortgage-free, 24/7 housing center for adolescent victims was built.
But, of course, maintaining the facility and program still requires funding. This is where the comedy event known as Free to Laugh comes in.
“That was actually started by a man named Brad Pellish. He’s a pastor of a church in Phoenix, Arizona. So Free to Laugh itself is actually a national movement, and he — about the same time we started up here with The Daughter Project — he was down in Phoenix, with their own problem with trafficking there. And he wanted to do something to help, as well, and he wasn’t sure what to do.
“He thought, ‘Well, I can raise money.’ He found a comedian, and he had this idea to have a comedy concert, which of course is an ironic idea, considering how serious of a problem it is. But that’s why it’s called that — Free to Laugh, and Laugh to Free.”
Soon, Free to Laugh fundraiser concerts were being held all over the country: Toledo’s first was in 2012, with all the proceeds going toward The Daughter Project. Now, Wilbarger and his group is preparing for the 2014 edition of Toledo’s Free to Laugh, being held Oct. 18 at the Nitschke Auditorium on the University of Toledo campus.
The show — advertised as being appropriate for ages 8 to 80 — is a family-friendly evening of comedy designed to both bring joy and raise funds for the cause. Comedians Daren Streblow, Bob Stromberg and regular Free to Laugh favorite Carlos Oscar are scheduled to perform.
Wilbarger noted that all expenses are paid for by Free to Laugh’s local sponsors — which means that 100% of the money raised goes right to The Daughter Project.
“I think that’s really neat, the way that works out. In fact, some of the comedians even will have — I’ve met them over the years, and they’ve said, they’ve done a lot of fundraisers throughout the years, and they’ve said this is the only one they’ve ever done where they can really say all the money goes to the organization.”
The event has seen a quantum leap in growth and prominence in each year of its existence. The first year, Free to Laugh Toledo drew around 800 attendees. The second year it grew to 1,200. Wilbarger expressed hope that this year’s performance would sell out the Nitschke Auditorium — which would mean over 2,000 people. He also noted how the event has more sponsors this year than ever before.
“I think that speaks for the event as well. I mean, if the comedians, for example, weren’t funny, or if people didn’t believe in what we were doing with the Daughter Project, and recognizing the problem and fighting against it, I think the thing would have fizzled fairly easily. But each year, the attendance has grown.”
And the man whose life was changed by a book — more than once, in fact — sees the fruits of his organization’s labor as the faith of many being rewarded.
“None of these girls deserve to be treated the way that they’ve been treated. So, for me, it’s a sense of calling from God to do this work,” Wilbarger said. “And we believe in prayer, the entire Daughter Project family — we’ve got people praying for the organization, as well as the girls we’ve been trying to help.
“And I see the fact that we were able to build a home right in the middle of the recession — and we built it from scratch, it’s about a 30,000 square foot house, well over a quarter of a million dollars of housing there, and furnished — but it’s completely mortgage-free. And we see that as an answer to prayer. God inspired a lot of people in the community to come together, build a home.”
Tickets for “Free to Laugh: Laugh to Free” cost $20 each. For more information, visit thedaughterproject.org.