Meet Some of Our Grant Recipients

Christian Choi

Reprinted from Protocol – Summer 2006

When a person takes the leap into the freelance world, it is always a daunting step at first. No matter what you do you really can’t be prepared enough for what may come across your path. As a freelance lighting designer, lighting director, and programmer, I’ve come across my fair share of forks in the road, ups, downs, sunshine, and rainy days. My path has taken me many miles around all of the experiences that embody the definition of freelancing.

I thought I finally figured out how to tame the wild road that a freelancing career can take you through, but all of that changed in May of 2004 when I had to go under the knife for my first spinal surgery. Luckily, I had health insurance but as an incorporated entity in the State of California with no employees, I couldn’t carry workers’ comp insurance. Health insurance is your workers’ comp if you are a single person entity. As a freelancer, it’s paramount that you save for rainy days and anyone who freelances for a living will tell you that the more liquidity you have in the bank, the more security you have. I had saved plenty for a rainy day but nothing could have prepared me for the last two years of my life. The one component I never dreamed would be an obstacle to my career was illness or serious injury.

To make a long story short, my first back surgery made way for a second, very difficult surgery. The pain was going to get a lot worse before it would get better. It was a daunting operation because it involved implanting a bunch of titanium rods, long screws, spacers, nuts, and two cages to replace two failed disks and would fuse my lumbar spine into one column of bone. I’ve got enough metal in my back now that when I finally do get back on my feet, I’ll need to carry around a card that explains it or I’ll face getting a full cavity search at the airport.

That being said, you now have an idea of the extent of my spinal problems. My finances, including my retirement savings, were depleted and my borrowed money only bought me a month more of time. I wasn’t going to heal in time for me to start taking work. This put an enormous amount of pressure on me. I couldn’t afford the prescribed physical therapy, so my recovery was going to take longer. I had nowhere to turn. I prayed that something would break loose, and then something miraculous happened.

Suffice it to say that during my worst hour of need, I found out about The ESTA Foundation’s Behind the Scenes program and it helped my wife and me survive the worst storm I’ve ever had to endure in my career. Without the grant they provided me for living expenses and physical therapy I really don’t know what we would have done. Thank you is an understatement and I suppose that there are no words to express the gratitude I have for the individuals who got me this relief so quickly.

Before all of this happened, I had no idea that there was a fund for entertainment technology professionals that people could contribute to in order to help our fellow peers and colleagues in their darkest hours. I was also surprised about how many people had already contributed to the fund, which is still in its infancy. The Behind the Scenes program provides industry members with grants for emergency situations such as serious illness or injury. The fund is distributed by the vote of the Board of Directors of The Behind the Scenes Foundation, and applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. I was so in the dark about this fund that when I was first told about it I dismissed it because I thought it was strictly for ESTA members. Luckily the person who told me about it emailed me the paperwork and implored me to fill it out because she knew how dire my circumstances were becoming. She told me that I didn’t need to be an ESTA member to qualify. Since I was looking at living in my car the next month, I filled out the paperwork and sent it in.

Very soon after, I received a call from the Foundation to tell me that I had been approved for a grant and they would be putting a check in the mail for overnight delivery. At first my wife and I were completely shocked, and then the relief set in. I now have the leverage to rebuild my life and career without having to worry about being homeless and sending my wife home to her family in New Zealand. What a gift of kindness and generosity. My viewpoint went from destitute to relief over the course of a phone call. This was about a week and a half ago and I still can’t believe it. It’s strange because I still dream as if I am in the dire circumstances I was before Behind the Scenes bestowed the relief upon me. When I wake up, I’m relieved all over again.

In this business, it’s definitely a rare thing to get help like this, especially if you don’t work for a regular company or patron. Even if you do, there’s not much anyone can do if you can hardly get out of bed. One of the worst feelings in the world is looking down the barrel of your financial fate and being handicapped or too ill to help yourself. It’s the most helpless feeling in the world, especially if you have family or a wife. That’s why if you are an entertainment technology professional, or you employ them, you should be aware of this fund.

I can’t stress the importance of the Behind the Scenes program enough. If you have the means to donate to it you will be helping those in dire need. That person could be you or one of your colleagues one day, and the more resources that the Foundation has to distribute, the better the health and welfare of the entertainment technology world will be.

Anyone who currently resides in the US or Canada and has worked in the industry for at least five years may qualify for a grant. Whether you are part of the freelance community, like I am, or work at a regular gig, or out of a union hall, or work for one of the many companies who manufacture or supply equipment and services, Behind the Scenes has been designed for you.

I’m very proud and honored to be a member of the freelance community that provides such excellent service to our industry; moreover, I’m honored and so thankful that Behind the Scenes was there for me when I most needed it. There really is no feeling comparable to the relief of a disastrous situation when you most need it, and that is what Behind the Scenes is all about.