Desert Bus Overlay pic for press
(courtesy Desert Bus for Hope)

Graham Stark is warming up the bus.

A virtual bus, that is.

Stark is a co-founder of Loading Ready Run (LRR), a Victoria-based sketch and internet comedy troupe that created and hosts an annual fundraiser called Desert Bus for Hope.

“This is something that everyone needs right now,” Stark said in an interview with Victoria Buzz, as he prepares to kick off another donor marathon playing one of the worst video games of all time.

Desert Bus for Hope features Stark and other members of LRR playing Desert Bus, a renowned video game that places gamers behind the wheel of an empty bus as it travels — in real-time — from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada.

In each of the past five years, Desert Bus for Hope has raised over $650,000 US for the Child’s Play charity, which provides toys and games to children undergoing treatment in hospitals, and also supports domestic violence shelters and programs.

Last year saw a record-breaking $865,015 US donated over 162 hours, bringing the cumulative total for the Desert Bus crew to $6,066,158.18.

While the game itself is tedious, the Desert Bus for Hope crew broadcast the gameplay live to an audience of thousands, and liven up the multi-day proceedings with dancing, jokes, singing and more.

A documentary on the 2016 fundraiser shows a behind-the-scenes look at the madcap antics, intense planning, and large gathering of volunteers that goes into Desert Bus for Hope.

That’s what usually happens.

Taking the bus online

This year, because of concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic, Desert Bus for Hope is embracing its technological roots and going for a fully virtual experience.

“We talked a lot about different ways that it could be done, up to and including getting everyone into the same city, doing it like the NBA bubble where everybody quarantines, and doing a show like normal,” Stark said.

“Where we’ve ended up is fully online, and we’re very happy with how things are going with the technology that we’ve put together and developed so this doesn’t look like a Zoom call.”

Viewers checking in to desertbus.org starting tomorrow at 10 a.m. PST will be greeted with a slick video chat overlay showing the crew safely playing the game and interacting in real-time from their homes.

Donations of any amount are accepted all throughout the fundraiser, and the more money the crew raises, the longer they drive the Desert Bus.

Stark says the team isn’t expecting any specific donation milestone this year, with COVID-19 creating economic uncertainties.

“It’s a pandemic, there’s lots of people who don’t have the money they would have had in another year,” he said.

“But then, there are different people who may have more. It is totally impossible to predict and I can’t wait to see what happens. I think we’ll be okay.”

Building Community

On top of the money raised, however, Stark and the Desert Bus team see their fundraiser as a boon for mental health in their communities, both online and offline.

“This is something that we love to do because it’s just putting good out into the world,” said Stark.

“We know that there’s people for whom this show is a great solace.”

Stark says those mental health benefits aren’t just for the viewers, but for him and the crew as well.

Like many businesses, LRR has had to adjust their outlook for 2020, shelving some planned projects and limiting in-person contacts.

“It is really difficult right now, especially as the case numbers and stuff seem to be getting worse, even locally,” said Stark.

“We’ve now sort of moved past even entertaining the notion of a timeline for when things might ‘return to normal.’”

That makes Desert Bus for Hope even more important, he says.

“To some it is a relief, to some it’s an escape bunker, where they can go and just hole up with these people doing these strange things on the internet. I think that’s a really important aspect of what we do.”

Desert Bus for Hope’s virtual approach will look different for 2020, but Stark wants to assure people that it will still have the same energy, positivity, and fun of any other year.

“It still feels like Desert Bus,” said Stark.

“Ultimately, what I am looking forward to the most is no different than any year: putting on a show, interacting with the chat, hanging out with my friends and making people laugh.”

Desert Bus for Hope 2020 kicks off online at desertbus.org on November 13 at 10 a.m. PST and runs as long as donation amounts dictate.