Monday, January 31, 2005

The Rex Foundation: Life After Dead
Joshua Sabatini
Tuesday, January 25, 2005

All aboard the community caravan!

Sandy Sohcot, executive director of the Rex Foundation, says for just five dollars you can be a part of the “greater philanthropic community.”

This foundation lost steam in the aftermath of Jerry Garcia’s death when aspects of the storied Grateful Dead-universe were writing their own conclusions. But soon the magical things sure to happen around the Dead did. New life arrived as if “born over again from above.”

So it wasn’t shocking that the Rex Foundation’s 20th Anniversary celebration at the Great American Music Hall on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco on Saturday, Dec. 11, promised a flourishing life for years to come.

Days before, speaking with Sohcot in her modest office in San Francisco’s Presidio, she described her plan for a more active foundation — to branch out from city to city, to strike up a grassroots effort via the Internet, to double the amount of grant money doled out annually.

“There was a bit of a hiatus after Jerry Garcia died [Aug. 9, 1995] until I came on board,” explains Sohcot, sitting inside her office. “All the contributions were from the people going to the concerts. The Grateful Dead would say, ‘OK we will put on a benefit concert, but everybody pays for their tickets and we’ll play at no cost.’ That was how Rex received its money.

“After Jerry Garcia died there was no directive of: ‘Let’s go out and ask people for money.’” She says the foundation survived on “having a little bit of a nest egg” that came in after Garcia died, allowing the foundation to fund programs each year to “keep the beat going.”

Then the board of directors — 16 members including Dead luminaries Bob Weir and Mickey Hart — made an important decision: “To have the foundation really active again even in the absence of the Grateful Dead — that was the desire and the commitment made.” In July 2001 the board hired Sohcot, who took over where Danny Rifkin left off.

Sohcot came on board in the wake of a remarkable track record. The first Rex benefit was held in the Spring of 1984 in San Rafael, Calif., and for the next 11 years the Grateful Dead performed Rex benefit concerts around the United States yielding more than $7 million in grant money that benefited about 900 programs.

Everything the Dead touched seemed revolutionary. It was true with their live music as it was true with their recording technology as it was true with their charitable organization.

"The Grateful Dead really created, they were one of the first — they formalized a process of giving back that set a model,” says Sohcot.

These days, the foundation’s operational budget sits at around $120,000 and the goal for grant money doled out in 2004 was $150,000. Since 2001, the foundation has provided a total of $350,000 for 50 programs.

When Sohcot set about revitalizing the foundation she chose tradition over reinvention. “We started by doing what was most familiar,” the longtime Deadhead says with a knowing smile. “And that was concerts. And who better to get to play than Bob Weir and Mickey Hart?”

Sohcot’s office walls read like a history book of the Rex Foundation in the 21st Century. Sitting in her swivel chair, she points to a poster behind my right shoulder that reads: “Healing Power of Music.” The placard announces a Dec. 1, 2001 show with musicians such as Weir, Hart and Bill Kreutzmann at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on Market Street. This concert was the beginning of Rex’s new life: It tested the waters, proving that even without the Grateful Dead munificence was alive, and well and music fans were still eager to assist those with little voice in America and beyond its waters. It was the first Rex benefit in six years. “Lots of people came. We sold out and raised about $136,000. That got it started,” Sohcot says. “Then we did another big benefit (the following year) that raised another $150,000.”

During the Grateful Dead years, the foundation’s core support came from Deadheads. They were a mysterious and magical community, a band of charity who could spread the word about a cause like wildfire and change its standing in the world forever.

It is this network Sohcot wants to rebuild in the post-Garcia era. The people who connected on the road, at campsites, in parking lots following the beneficial notes of Garcia are now invited onboard a virtual Community Caravan, where once again their coming together will make a difference.

“We want to be granting at least $500,000 a year. And it would be very difficult to do that all through events,” Sohcot says. “Community Caravan is based on the idea that people can donate five dollars and be a part of a larger community.”

This concept was launched in mid-October on the foundation’s website with little formality other than an e-mail network that’s ever-growing.

Since the children of the nineties were the last to undergo the Grateful Dead experience, Rex is trying to tap into up and coming generations. “Many of us have been around Rex for almost 20 years - we want to carry this forward and we want to actually bring it to the next generation,” she says.

To do so she is enlisting the support of jam bands, who were influenced by the Grateful Dead’s leap of faith when it came to improvisation.

For instance, when Sohcot booked String Cheese Incident to play the East Coast celebration of the foundation’s 20th Anniversary in New Jersey, it was considered a major accomplishment, bridging the generation gap.

Another milestone event for the foundation last year was the first ever Black Tie-Dye Ball in Chicago, the first benefit outside of the Bay Area since 1994. Five Chicago-based groups received $5,000 each from the event and Chicago-based Dark Star Orchestra headlined. “The benefit created a model for what we like to keep doing — to have more connections around the country with local communities,” Sohcot says.

The foundation often supports programs that are small (with budgets under $500,000) and controversial, such as the needle exchange program in San Francisco.

Rex’s board of directors identifies the groups who will receive the grants. The main thread linking Rex’s beneficiaries is transformational philanthropy, “really trying to find a solution for something, not just putting a band-aide on it.”

For example, Rex granted $2,500 to Mwangaza Tanzania, an organization that provides physically disabled children in rural villages with medical care. The organization discovered that a high number of children had a crippling bone condition called osteofluorosis caused by drinking water high in fluoride. The organization works to treat the children afflicted by this disease and teach villagers how to purify water.

Sohcot’s inspiration derives in part from the “Tale of the Grateful Dead: The Water of Life.” She hands me a copy as retold by Alan Trist. In brief, it’s a tale about being kind to strangers and the dead, who have returned to help the living. “The idea is people may die but their spirit is somehow present and in some way trying to help those of us who are having to deal with life without them. I think that we have a lot of that,” says Sohcot.

For instance, she says her husband did some legal work for the people in the Dead office years ago and he died of Leukemia. His death inspired the Rex Foundation to donate money to help develop a national registry system for potential bone donors.

And also, she says, “I am convinced that Bill Graham, Jerry Garcia, Rex, all of them, they are out there. It really does feel like there is some divine intervention that goes on from time to time.”

Sohcot stands before the microphone on this night marking a new dawn for Rex and addresses the packed Great American Music Hall: “You have yourselves to thank because this is because of everybody who is here tonight and everybody who has been contributing by going to concerts. Thank yourselves. This is a big community.”

Soon thereafter the Everyone Orchestra took the stage, and soon thereafter Weir joined the band along with RatDog band mate Mark Karan, delivering a highly-energized set, which included songs: “Friend of the Devil,” “Cassidy” and “For What It’s Worth.”

Photos by Rob Snyder and Scott Meivogel