Atypical Talent

To adapt to the pandemic, the Autism Society of San Diego got creative to showcase talent and continue providing support to families living with autism.

Atypical Talent
“J The King” won first-place in the inaugural Autism’s Got Talent fundraiser. Photo courtesy Autism Society of San Diego.

Listening to his mix—and not knowing about restrictions on gatherings—you might think DJ Jonah “J The King” Parks was spinning at any popular club. Instead, the teen was the winner of Autism’s Got Talent, a virtual fundraiser for the Autism Society of San Diego. “It was the most successful fundraiser we’ve had in 10 years,” says board member Alyssa Label ’06.

In response to COVID-19, the Autism Society of San Diego scrambled to adapt its annual event that funds programming and support to local families living with autism.

“Everyone was trying to think out of the box,” says Label, a therapist who serves on the board. So Joel Ellazar ’00, a PR consultant whose wife works with the nonprofit, came up with the idea to do a virtual fundraiser, in the vein of “America’s Got Talent” in which people can pay to vote for their favorite act. His client Rock and Roll San Diego, a live music rehearsal space, provided its stage for free.

“We got a video director who’d worked with Journey, audio people who’d done stuff with KISS,” says Ellazar. “We tried to give them the whole rock star experience.”

In the first round, 23 people sent in videos of their talents, ranging from stand-up comedy to classical piano.

Joel and alyssa
Joel Ellazar ’00 and Alyssa Label ’06 say so many people and local organizations were eager to volunteer their time and resources to host a successful virtual fundraiser. Photo courtesy Ellazar.

The videos were uploaded online and viewers paid $5 to vote for their favorite performer. The semi-finalists and finalists, who competed for a $1,000 prize, were filmed live at Rock and Roll San Diego.

“Once they made it from one round to the next, their confidence grew so much,” says Label. “Doing a livestream, too, we could expand our reach so much further than San Diego … We can’t wait to do it again [this] year.”