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Student to host comedy show to benefit critically ill teens

It's an American rite of passage: Prom night, with all its glamour, where the demands of high school are pushed aside by balloons and glitter and a few hours of decadent celebration.

But as Fred Scarf '12 learned the hard way, not every student gets to share the glamour. For teens with critical illnesses, prom night can be out of reach -- replaced with a life of frequent hospital stays, surgeries, treatments and constant worry.

Scarf was in high school when he found a best friend in classmate Shiri Gumbiner ... and then, just a year later, lost her to osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.

During his sophomore year in high school, Scarf founded the nonprofit organization No Worries Now in Gumbiner's memory. Its mission: to plan and hold proms around the country for teens with life-threatening illnesses.

"Prom is a place where [teens] can feel their potential," Scarf said. "They feel out of the loop; they feel disenfranchised. This is a great way to get them back in the loop. It's also a way for them to remember who they are for one night."

For his work, the Sherman Oaks, Calif. native and government major was honored this year as a CNN Hero -- one of 25 people around the world chosen from more than 10,000 nominations for making a positive impact in the world.

When viewers whittled the candidates down in September, he was disappointed not to make the top 10. (The No. 1 CNN hero, to be chosen from the top 10 on Thanksgiving, will receive $100,000.)

But Scarf is not one to brood. A stand-up comedian in his spare time, he'll be putting on a show, "Small Talk with Fred Scarf," Nov. 7 from 9 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. in Barnes Hall to raise awareness for the cause -- and have a little fun while he's at it.

The show is open to the public. If people are inclined to donate to the organization, Scarf will have information on how to do it -- but admission is free.

And he still has proms to plan. Since its inception in 2006, No Worries Now has held proms in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Next year's plans include events in Los Angeles and New York; and he's shooting for an international debut prom in London in 2013.

Every prom is held near a hospital and has a physician on site. Measures are in place to reduce the risk of spreading infection. But beyond those things, "they really feel like proms," Scarf said.

"When you're dying of cancer, people really act different," he said. "One thing that's really great about this is the authenticity of [the promgoers'] friendships."

Six years after Gumbiner's death, the proms are also a tribute to her, he said.

"She had one of the most uplifting, funkiest, sweetest personalities I'll ever meet," he said. "I really didn't want to lose that energy. She would have wanted something to make kids smile, to make them feel glamorous. I think that's what these proms do.

"I'm a big believer in turning something painful into something beautiful," he said. "Shiri was definitely someone who could carry that spirit. So the foundation is just a wonderful continuation of that."

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Joe Schwartz