Benefit of Laughter

Looking at Vicki Schimmel today, a vibrant woman bouncing her baby son in her lap as she talks enthusiastically over lunch about her upcoming project, it's hard to imagine her not being functional, much less suffering a nervous breakdown. But her life ground to a halt in just that way some six years ago, and for a reason that makes her recovery almost as remarkable--her older son, Derek, the second of her four children, died at the age of 11 after a long struggle with medullablastoma, a form of brain cancer.

"In the external world, people take your grief away," says Schimmel. "They expect you to get over it very quickly." As a refuge from this "external world"--the world, in other words, of the nonbereaved--Schimmel and several other people of similar experience have established O.U.R. Kids, Inc. The organization's aim is to open "O.U.R. House," a nonprofit "grief resource center dedicated to helping children and families heal" after, or during, a devastating loss.

To raise funds for this facility, Schimmel and her associates are presenting "Healing With Humor: An Evening With Robert Schimmel," a benefit comedy performance. It's slated for 8 p.m. Monday, June 14, at the Tempe Improv Comedy Theater.

The headliner for this show is Vicki's husband, the 1999 American Comedy Awards "Male Stand-Up of the Year" and Valley resident who played to sold-out crowds in a recent run at the Improv. Also on the bill is the popular local comic Mark Cordes, and, to kick off the evening, music by the "Rockin' Docs," a band composed entirely of Valley physicians.

After Derek died, his father, then a rising star on the stand-up circuit and a writer for TV's In Living Color, was able to find some outlet for his emotions in his work--although he didn't discuss the tragedy in his act, he found direction in the pursuit of his career, and in the life-affirming high of making people laugh. The Schimmels' oldest daughter, Jessica, now a pre-med student at UofA, dealt with the loss by assuming a caretaker role in the family.

Vicki, however, was left for a long time in a state of helpless, purposeless bereavement with nowhere to go but to the cemetery to visit her son's grave. It was on such a visit that she made the acquaintance of Penny Brand, a nurse whose daughter Lindsay had died of the same disease that had taken Derek. The two became friends and eventually hit upon the idea of creating a resource to provide the community with the sort of services they had been unable to find.

The "O.U.R." in O.U.R. Kids stands for "Outreach Understanding Resource." The house that Schimmel and Brand, with the administrative help of Erin Neathery and the support of a variety of Valley medical and therapy professionals, plan to break ground for somewhere in central Phoenix within a year or so would provide grief support for adults, teens and siblings as well as toddler observation, and intervention following diagnosis. "The Center will include a meditation room stocked with books and resources about grief and healing, an anger room where people can vent their frustration without fear of judgment," along with rooms for children and teens, among other facilities. "We also want to make marriage counselors available," Schimmel adds, "because so many marriages end up in trouble after the loss of a child."

"I had nowhere to go after Derek died," Schimmel says. She ran the gamut of traditional approaches to dealing with grief--costly one-on-one therapy, antidepressant medications and a support group that forced her to return to the site of Derek's diagnosis and hospitalization for meetings. It was out of the failure of these methods that the O.U.R. House concept evolved. The organization's slogan is simplicity itself: "And when people feel sad, they can come to O.U.R. House."

--M. V. Moorhead

"Healing With Humor: An Evening With Robert Schimmel" is scheduled at 8 p.m. Monday, June 14, at the Tempe Improv Comedy Theater, 930 East University (at Cornerstone mall). Tickets are $25. Doors open at 6 p.m.; dinner (not included in ticket price) is available before the show. For reservations call 480-921-9877. Tax-deductible donations to O.U.R. Kids, Inc., may be sent to 7119 East Shea, Suite 109-392, Scottsdale,

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead