Cause for Laughter: Healing pain through comedy

Kate Carroll of Bethel, in back, has taped a comedy show to raise money to build a house for her friend, Darlene Rogers, and her granddaughters, Jozlyn Robinson and Lyana Morin. Judith Meyer / Bethel Citizen

BETHEL — In 1997, Kate Carroll had brain surgery to repair an aneurysm. She woke up a comedian.

Not that she wasn’t amusing before the surgery, she acknowledges, but she emerged from the operating room transformed.

This compact kindly woman, with a sweet face and curly gray hair, delivers what one might call “blue” comedy. As in: not for the tender ears of children.

It’s bawdy. High energy. Shocking good fun.

Carroll, who worked a career as a hair stylist, may have an outrageous stage mouth, but she also has a heart of gold.

She recently filmed a 64-minute comedy show with Johnny Friggin’ Ater to raise money to build a house for her longtime friend, Darlene Rogers, and Rogers’ granddaughters Lyana Morin and Jozlyn Robinson.

The three currently live in Woodstock and the new house will be constructed on nearby land Rogers already owns. Carroll has plans donated by the builder who recently built the home in Bethel where she lives with her husband, Ronald. The floor plan for the new house exactly mimics Carroll’s own home because the girls are frequent visitors in her home and are comfortable there.

That is especially true for 6-year-old Lyana, who has cerebral palsy. When not using her walker, she gets around by scooting across the floor.

Carroll’s home was built with radiant floor heat embedded in polished cement, a surface that provides ease and warmth for the cheerful kindergartner — who likes pink and anything that sparkles — to move around.

Rogers and the girls are excited about the prospect of moving out of their two-story home that is heated with a woodstove, because 11-year-old Jozlyn — a fiercely athletic girl who goes by Jozzie — struggles with gas and the wood smoke triggers attacks.

The bathroom and bedrooms in their current home are all on the second floor. Lyana isn’t able to navigate the stairs, so her mother or sister carry her up to her room and to the bath when needed.

The house simply isn’t the right one for this family’s needs.

Rogers — formerly Darlene Pilgrim — met her longtime partner Rick Rogers at The Disco at Sunday River in 2002. She had two children at the time, and she and the children moved in with Rick, who helped raise them.

Rogers’ daughter, Jennell Pilgrim-Robinson, eventually moved away from Maine, where she had Jozzie and Lyana.

Lyana was born in Florida at 29 weeks, weighing just 2 pounds. When she was 3 days old, she had major surgery due to a brain bleed during birth, an injury that doctors believe brought on cerebral palsy.

When Pilgrim-Robinson’s marriage faltered, she moved back to Woodstock to live with her mother and Rogers. She found a job, bought a car and was making plans to move herself and her children to a home of their own when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Despite radiation treatments, chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and brain surgery, she died five months after diagnosis, on April 22, 2018.

She was 28 years old.

A month later, Rick and Darlene Rogers married, after 17 years of partnership, in order to gain guardianship of the girls, who were then 2 years and 7 years old.

A couple of months later, Rick — known by friends and family as Rick “Jolly” Rogers — fell down the stairs in the family home.

Rogers and her granddaughters heard him fall when they coming in the door after attending an afternoon movie, and called an ambulance. First responders performed CPR as his wife and the girls watched, and he was transported to Central Maine Medical Center where he was placed on life support.

He died on July 29, two months after marrying his love.

He was 66 years old.

Through all of this, Carroll supported her friend and did what she could help with the girls, but it was hard. And sad.

Earlier this year, when Carroll’s radiant floor heating was acting up, she called Roger Arsenault of Community Energy to check it. While he was there, she showed him a two-page letter she’d written about Rogers and her granddaughters’ situation. Carroll said Arsenault looked at her and asked “What are you going to do?”

She immediately answered back, “I’m going to build her a house.”

And, just as immediately, he volunteered to provide the radiant heating.

Arsenault’s offer spurred Carroll into action and she started calling around for other donations.

She now has two excavator operators willing to clear a driveway and footprint for the house. Mike Field of Field’s Plumbing will donate all the necessary plumbing, Western Maine Supply has offered to help with the kitchen, and Carroll’s builder, David Berry, has offered to served as general contractor on the project at no cost.

Carroll believes she may have a donation for roof trusses. She has a donation of forms to pour cement for a foundation pad and is working on a cement supplier, but she still needs walls — exterior and interior — a roof, windows, appliances and more.

Six-year-old Lyana Morin, a kindergarten student at Crescent Park Elementary School, has cerebral palsy and can’t navigate stairs. The Bethel community is gathering resources to help build a new home for the girl, her older sister and their grandmother. Judith Meyer / Bethel Citizen

The house is designed on a single level with about 1,800 square feet, featuring a large open kitchen, dining and living space, three bedrooms, two full baths and a two-car garage. The door frames will be ADA compliant, and Berry said builders would build a ramp from the garage to the living space to ease Lyana’s path.

“I need people to know what I’m doing and why,” Carroll said.

She speaks from experience of illness and recovery.

Three years after the brain surgery that altered her funny bone, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She struggled through painful treatment and recovery and then, in 2003, she had a second surgery for a second brain aneurysm. Two brain surgeries and a double mastectomy in five years’ time was a lot to bear, but Carroll said “those experiences have made me very grateful to be alive.”

“I go to bed every night and I practice gratitude,” she said, “and I wake up in the morning and I’m smiling.”

In her gratitude, Carroll has launched a number of community events, including the Festival of Hope held in August last year, and Cause for Laughter, where she raises money for good causes and needy families through a laughter.

Cause for Laughter started from a painful place.

Carroll’s best friend while growing up in Rumford, who she walked to school with every morning and who served as her maid of honor, died 31 days after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She left a disabled daughter who has two disabled children of her own, and Carroll said she felt compelled to help them. “That was the start of Cause for Laughter,” she said.

She had cried so much over the loss of her friend, “that I needed to laugh, so I did a couple of events in Bethel” that were free to attend, and then decided she should start charging and use the money for good.

Carroll is a regular at Mt. Abram and has won the Last Comic Standing in Bethel.

“I’m just so lucky to be alive that I have latched on to the happy train,” she said, and has no plans to disembark.

The cause for the Rogers family is her largest and most complicated ever, but she’s determined to make it happen. While she has received a great number of material and professional donations, she knows there will be costs and she doesn’t want Rogers to bear those expenses. So, she teamed up with Friggin’ Ater — another comedian whose shows are for ages 21-and-older — and recorded a show at the Modern Barn in Bethel with Maine Multimedia.

Friggin’ Ater, who is actually Bath painting contractor Johnny Ater by day, has been doing standup since 2003 throughout New England. He has performed at the Punchline in San Francisco and headlined the Maine Comedy Festival. He is scheduled to perform at the Maine Comedy Festival from Sept. 22-23 in Bethel.

Carroll said she truly enjoys working with him because “just the funniest things come out of his mouth,” and she is certain he’ll help draw an audience for the comedy video.

“I’m trying to build a house for two very deserving little girls,” Carroll said, and has been overwhelmed by the generosity of donors and others who are supporting the work. And Rogers has been a full partner in the planning, which Carroll said has been part of the fun.

Rogers said the girls are looking at paint swatches to decide what color they want their rooms to be painted and, while she’s as excited as they are, she’s also stunned by the community’s enormous generosity, knowing so many people want to help her.

Lyana said she’s most excited about the move because she’ll get her own room and “we don’t have to go upstairs because there won’t be any stairs, and my room is going to have colors that I like.” Like pink and teal. Everywhere.

Jozzie, a student at Crescent Park Elementary School in Bethel, plays soccer, football, basketball and softball. She comes by her athleticism naturally, as her mother was the first female football player at Telstar High School, but she also likes to dance and is captain of her Foosball team.

She’s less about the paint and more about the fresh start, she said. And, not having to worry about the wood smoke and her allergies in a new place.

For Rogers, “both my husband and my daughter passed away in my house,” she said, and “there is an emotional attachment to it, but it’s also a constant reminder. Not that I’ll never not remember them, but we need a fresh, clean slate.”

And, she said, it’s important to give Lyana more independence as she grows.

Plus, she said, “I’m not getting any younger and Lyana’s not getting any smaller. Carrying her upstairs is nothing I’m going to miss.”

Rogers is thankful. “How thankful I am. How lucky I am to live in the community that I live in, for sure. They’re amazing.”

She said she’s not able to donate financially to causes, but she donates time to her community and involves the girls in everything she does, like roadside cleanup. “We donate our time,” she said, to help others, and she’ll do whatever she can to return the kindnesses she has received through this house-building project. “I’ll definitely be paying this forward,” she said.

To download the comedy video, go to letthelittlegirlsbreathe.godaddysites.com. Cost of the adults-only download is $50, and all proceeds will go toward building a home for Rogers and her granddaughters.

For material or financial donations, contact Carroll at [email protected]

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