Jack Knox: From Desert Bus to Christmas Fund, it's a challenge to stay on the road

Jack Knox mugshot genericGraham Stark sounded a little bleary.

“What is this, Tuesday?”

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No, it was Wednesday. You could forgive the uncertainty, though. Stark was part of a group of online entertainers who had, since the previous Friday, been taking turns playing an around-the-clock session of the video game Desert Bus as a charity fundraiser.

Desert Bus just might be — no, definitely is — the world’s most boring video game. That’s how it was billed by its creators, the illusionists Penn and Teller, when they made it as a satirical response to warnings about video violence in 1995.

Basically, the game involves driving a virtual bus between Tuscon, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, at a constant 72 km/h. That’s it. Nothing blows up. No blood splatters gruesomely against the windshield. Nobody gets on or off. The bus pulls slightly to the right, forcing the driver/player to keep steering, which means there’s no way to get up and go for a sandwich, but otherwise nothing happens. The trip takes eight hours.

“It’s beyond dull,” Stark says. “It’s a perfectly straight road. There are no other cars. There are no distractions.”

In 2007, Stark and a few others at LoadingReadyRun, a Victoria-based online comedy troupe and video-production company, decided to play a live-streamed, week-long Desert Bus marathon to raise money for Child’s Play, a charity that helps kids in hospitals and domestic-violence shelters. They pulled in $22,805, with Penn and Teller among the donors. (Teller also sent pizza every day.)

Good for them.

The marathon became an annual affair, growing in size and reputation. It even inspired a North Carolina filmmaker to shoot a documentary, We Are Desert Bus, in 2016. LoadingReadyRun, founded by Stark and Paul Saunders, has most of its viewership in the U.S., but donations — including those from Penn and Teller, who give every year — come from around the world.

Thanks to COVID, this year’s 14thannual version of the marathon included drivers joining remotely, not only from Victoria but as far away as Seattle, San Francisco and Berlin. (Viewers might be attracted by the entertainment provided by the LoadingReadyRun people, but many of the volunteers behind Desert Bus of Hope have no connection to the company.)

By the time the telethon wrapped up at 6:20 a.m. Friday, it had raised — wait for it — $987,094, bringing the running total to more than $7 million. “We were flabbergasted,” Stark says.

Desert Bus of Hope must be one of the more unlikely successes in the philanthropic world, particularly in a year in which so many charities are getting killed by COVID.

Actually, many of Canada’s 170,000 non-profits were suffering even before the pandemic. Donations fell seven per cent — or $600 million — between 2006 and 2015, according to an analysis of Statistics Canada figures. The percentage of families who give to charity fell from 45.3 to 39.9 in the same period. Fundraising has been getting tougher.

Even when a charity conjures up an innovative event, it usually has a shelf life. The 24-Hour Relay for the Easter Seals camp at Shawnigan Lake ended its two-decade run six years ago.

Likewise, the Victoria Idol talent show flamed brightly when launched as a fundraiser for Peers Victoria in 2005, but lost its glow after a few years. The Ice Bucket Challenge, which in 2014 brought ALS Canada $16 million — twice its annual budget — turned out to be a one-summer wonder.

It seems almost ironic that one of the long-running charities around is the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, which, frankly, might be almost as boring as Desert Bus.

For real. Others causes might try to entice donors with flashy events and eye-catching stunts (a couple of years ago I rappelled down Victoria’s 13-storey CIBC building for Make-A-Wish, my terrified squealing drawing only a flicker of annoyance from an office worker inside), but here at the Times Colonist we pretty much just stick our hands out and ask for money. Not the sexiest of approaches, but the newspaper has been making it work since 1956.

Unfortunately, it works because of the need. People donate to the Christmas Fund because it’s a way for neighbours who have a bit of money to help neighbours who don’t.

The challenge this year is that the pandemic has tilted the teeter-totter, with some of those who used to be on the giving end now sliding to the getting. And unless they’re selling black market hand sanitizer, even those still on the giving side aren’t getting rich.

If you can help this year, great. If not, that’s perfectly understandable. We all have our own causes, and we all have our own capacity to donate. But if you can climb on the bus, please hop on board.

HOW TO DONATE

Go to timescolonist.com/donate. That takes you to the Canada Helps website, which is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.

Mail a cheque, payable to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund Society, to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Road, Victoria V9A 6X5.

Use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday through Friday. Outside those hours, messages will be accepted.

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