The ELF Foundation

The Elf Foundation's accomplishments are extraordinary. In just four and a half years, the nonprofit organization has facilitated the design and construction of more than 40 Rooms of Magic. These are private entertainment theaters in medical facilities for children: hospitals, as well as centers for autism, abused children, and kids with long-term disabilities. And none of the design work or state-of-the-art equipment for these children's oases costs the host facilities a cent.

Elf is the brainchild of Doug Weinstein, 49, and his partner, Carol Campbell. After one of Weinstein's young nieces was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, he was struck by the tedium children experience during extended hospital stays. "Kids stuck in hospitals have nothing to do," Weinstein told Stereophile. "They experience tremendous stress and boredom. The less depressed the kid, the less medication they need, and the faster they heal."

In late 2000, when Weinstein, a former JVC employee and manager for Vega International's wireless intercom company, was brainstorming with audio/video retailer Andy Singer, of New York City's Sound by Singer, about the need for charitable outreach by the consumer-electronics industry, he recalled his niece. Weinstein decided then and there to rally the industry to donate their "toys" to kids in hospitals. After raising seed money, he incorporated the Elf Foundation in July 2001.

"The Elf Foundation is dedicated to bringing the magic of film and music to any place a child is sick and cannot get to the movies," Weinstein explains. "To see a child's face light up and a parent lay down their burden for a few hours-to witness a kid in a wheelchair kick back and enjoy an exciting cinematic experience-is really magic!"

Equally amazing is how little the Elf Foundation spends on administration and fundraising. In its first five years, Elf spent an average of 93.1% of revenue on program services. The banner year for efficiency was 2005, when almost 94% of the Foundation's expense budget of $706,909 was dedicated to program services.

Weinstein attributes his success to the generosity of dealers across the country, who, after networking with him at Consumer Electronics Shows and CEDIA Expos, agree to take over and manage an entire installation. Equally important are the people and organizations within the industry who donate money, advertising space, and equipment. Stereophile's parent company, Primedia, for example, cosponsors concert benefits for the foundation, underwrites the annual CEDIA Elf Party, and contributes to an annual Elf fundraising auction, held the past few years at the company's Home Entertainment Shows.

There are tax benefits for such donations, but the industry has embraced Elf for mainly altruistic reasons. "This is not a PR bonanza for high-end firms," Weinstein explains. "The equipment is locked away for safekeeping; you can't see whose name is on it. No plaques on the wall, no advertising gimmicks."

The Elf Foundation usually installs state-of-the-art plasma-based or projection film screens and sound equipment. An average installation costs $60,000. And because home-theater technology changes rapidly, Elf has already undertaken several major upgrades in facilities, says Weinstein. "We change technology as people change underwear. As new technology warrants it, we make the shift. As of 2006, we're looking at embracing media servers and building libraries."

What's screened in a Room of Magic is determined solely by hospital staff, and is often augmented by DVDs brought in by the children themselves. The only content specifically provided by the Elf Foundation is XM Satellite Radio, which supplies their Disney channel and XM for Kids during times when the theater rooms are turned into playrooms. The rooms also serve as activity centers, where musical instructors, artists, and artists-in-residence can engage children in diversion therapy. Equipped with stages often large enough to accommodate a string quartet, the theaters sometimes host live performances. Parents also sometimes use the rooms as quiet areas, relaxing to classical music.

Calling himself "a fanatic on sound," Weinstein is adamant that Elf's state-of-the-art systems offer great sound. "I'm still a two-channel person," he says. "I believe there is something therapeutic about how good sound feels on your body. When you experience a good three-dimensional soundfield, it not only sounds good, it feels good."

Hospital administrators talk among themselves, and word of the Elf Foundation's services has spread far and wide-Weinstein regularly fields phone and e-mails requests for services from both the US and Canada. The foundation's schedule through 2010 currently includes work on more than 50 projects in new hospitals. Many other projects await the availability of a high-level, professional dealer in the target area who is willing to take on the outfitting of an Elf Room of Magic.