Backyard Talent Show participants hold signs in 2011 showing their growth of the event over its first four years.

Backyard talent show

A decade ago, four little girls raised $350 for St. Jude with their neighborhood event that's grown to rally and raise nearly $150,000.

 

On a clear, mild evening in July 2017, a crowd of 700 gathered in a park in Morton, Ill., for a community talent show that drew two dozen acts to the large pavilion stage. 

This diverse group of people ten miles from Peoria looked forward to more than just a night of entertainment — the Backyard Talent Show was celebrating its 10th year of raising funds and awareness for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. 

Featuring acts by participants aged 3 to 18, and produced by kids and young adults, the Backyard Talent Show has grown from a modest event with eight participants in the backyard of a Morton family to the public show driven by the talent and commitment of more than 50 children and teens. 

From the first show a decade ago that raised $350 with an audience of 35 family members and close friends, the Backyard Talent Show has rallied civic pride and now raised nearly $150,000. These funds help ensure families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food — because all a family should worry about is helping their child live. 

Those participating all agree to raise a minimum of $35, and other funds come from donations and concessions. 

“The Backyard Talent Show for St. Jude has always been about kids helping kids — never adults creating a show for kids,” said Claire Geier, a college freshman who was in elementary school when she created the event with her twin sister Kaitlyn, and cousins Madison and Isabelle Kolvek. 

After a successful lemonade stand fundraiser for St. Jude in July 2008, the girls envisioned a talent show that could raise even more money for. 

“We all love to perform — we grew up dancing and cheerleading as well — and knew plenty of other kids who liked to perform, too,” said Madison Kolvek, now a college junior. 

 

The four founders of the Backyard Talent Show (from left, Isabelle Kolvek, Madison Kolvek, Kaitlyn Geier and Claire Geier) with their first check to St. Jude in 2008. It all started with a lemonade stand in a backyard and has grown into an annual community-wide event in a city park. 

Like seasoned talent scouts, the girls worked the phones recruiting friends and cousins to participate. Early acts included comedy routines, pet tricks, singing and magic tricks. 

Acts now range from poetry readings and singing and dancing to original gymnastics and cheerleading routines. In 2011, the Backyard Talent Show moved from the Kolvek family’s backyard to a city park, and St. Jude patients have even participated in recent years. 

Balloons are released at the Backyard Talent Show

Following each Backyard Talent Show, balloons are released to honor children who lost their lives to cancer in the past year. Here, the event’s founders (front) sit with a St. Jude parent (striped shirt) prior to the release in 2017.

In ten years of talent performances, organizers say it is hard to pick one act that stands out “because the genuine hearts of the kids who come out to perform are truly special,” said Isabelle Kolvek, a high-school senior.

“Each child gives their performance their all and not for their own glory, but to make a difference for the kids of St. Jude.” added Kaitlyn Geier, now a college freshman.

Children can do amazing things if we give them the encouragement and opportunities to do them.
Madison Kolvek

An emotional highlight each year is the balloon release at the end of the talent show. Each balloon is tagged with the name of a child lost to cancer during the prior year. The children are those whose stories are followed on social media or whom participants may know personally.  

As the talent show’s original founders have grown, they have remained involved but have recruited younger leadership to take their place with the hope that one day there could be Backyard Talent Shows for St. Jude across the country.

 

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