Two benefit fundraisers are being planned to help local musician and artist Keith Kozel raise the money needed for a life-saving kidney transplant.
Kozel has been a prominent part of Savannah's music and culture scene since the mid-1980s.
"I moved to Savannah with my family from Louisville, Ky., because my father had a teaching position at Savannah State University," he says. "He is a professor of biology and held a position there until he and my amazing stepmom moved away to Anderson, S.C., where he teaches now."
The singer/songwriter and frontman of the alternative and garage-rock bands GAM, Superhorse, The Hall Monitor and the Foxedos also is a visual artist known for his paintings and hand-drawn illustrations, some of which have appeared on T-shirts, concert posters and album covers.
"I've lived in Savannah since 1982, so I consider myself to be a local," Kozel says. "I went to Windsor Forest High School. I've spent my time here pursuing an artistic lifestyle, illustrating and playing in several original rock bands.
"I didn't actually start playing music until my early 20s," he says. "I was caught up with the punk rock and performance art bug of the late '80s and early '90s. I would sit in with my friend's bands and eventually was swept up in a few groups full time."
A vinyl record collector turned club DJ, Kozel is a writer whose work has appeared in an anthology published by Simon & Schuster.
"That's supposed to be a secret," he says. "I began my spiral into art as an illustrator, and though I have dabbled in painting, writing, computer art and such, I am still best at illustration."
For nearly 25 years, Kozel was the kitchen manager of Vinnie Van Go-Go's Pizzeria in City Market.
Although he has led a healthy lifestyle, Kozel was diagnosed five years ago with Type 2 MPGN, a degenerative kidney disease. Two years ago, as a result of the disease, he had a stroke that caused permanent visual impairment.
"Besides being my own personal nightmare, it stands for 'Membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis Type 2,'" Kozel says. "It's a condition that occurs when dense deposits of material - in my case one of my own antibodies - are deposited in the kidneys and cause scarring, which impedes their function. Eventually they cannot work any more, which is where my kidneys will be very soon."
Although Kozel sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic and Emory Hospital, both his kidneys are now in end-stage renal failure. In order to survive, he requires dialysis and needs a kidney transplant.
"I received this diagnosis about five years ago," Kozel says. "Despite taking precautions with my health to extend the life of my kidneys, the disease moved about twice as fast as we originally anticipated.
"There are very few treatments which have shown success, and since the underlying cause of my condition could not be found, there are practically none. I received a series of chemotherapy-like infusions of an antibody called 'rituximab,' and I have stuck to a strict renal health diet."
Because of his health problems, Kozel recently was forced to resign his job.
"I have a very young daughter just 1 year old and an amazing wife who runs her own business, Scribble Art Studio, so I do many of the stay-at-home dad things," he says. "This is super fulfilling in a family sense, but I am no longer a financial contributor to the household, which makes things difficult."
And Kozel is facing a very high price for a transplant and ongoing treatment.
The estimated cost for a kidney transplant, the follow-up treatment and medications he will have to take ranges from $300,000 to $400,000, and although he has health insurance, it would come nowhere near covering all costs. The cost is $35,000 just to get him started on dialysis.
"My medical costs are covered in a very minimal and basic way by insurance," Kozel says. "Since leaving my job, I am provided for via the Affordable Care Act. It fulfills the basic requirements of health insurance, but my bills, current and future, are staggering.
"Since I will be on immune system suppressing drugs for the rest of my life, it will be quite expensive," he says. "I can't even imagine that much money."
That's why Kozel is going public in hopes of raising the money needed.
"I have never had any issue with people knowing about my condition, but there was no real reason to advertise it until now," Kozel says. "I never wanted to be identified more by my illness rather than by who I am, and I feel our society has a tendency to do that with the sick.
"I have gone 'public' with my condition because I have no alternative than to ask for the assistance of my friends and neighbors," he says. "Put simply, our family cannot do this alone and we need help."
Fortunately, Kozel has lots of friends and fans who want to help him. A series of benefit events, merchandise sales and a Kickstarter campaign are being planned to raise the money.
Anyone interested in making donations securely online with a credit card can do so here.
On Sept. 27, the Psychotronic Film Society will screen director Tim Burton's 1985 classic "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" at the Lucas Theatre.
Jim Reed, founder and artistic director of the society, has been friends with Kozel for years.
"I moved to Savannah in the summer of 1986, and if I am not mistaken, met Keith on my second or third day in town." Reed says. "He is one of my very oldest and dearest friends in this city."
Reed is well aware of the disease's impact on his friend.
"He shared his diagnosis with me several years ago, so I have known that his need for dialysis and a transplant has been a looming issue ever since," Reed says. "We both play in a band called Superhorse that only performs publicly once or twice a year, and so whenever we would all get together to rehearse after an extended period, I was able to clearly observe the toll the kidney disease was methodically taking on both his stamina and his physical abilities."
Musicians love what they do, even though for the most part, it pays very little.
"I live a very meager existence, as do most of my compatriots," Reed says. "As a result, I am very rarely able to contribute financially to the various causes and charities which I support.
"However, since I was in high school, I have occasionally organized public events which benefit such causes. In this way, I can actually facilitate raising much more money than I could ever afford to donate myself.
"In the back of my head, I always assumed I would wind up doing something of that sort for Keith when the time came, and a few months back, when he revealed that his disease was advancing at an unexpectedly fast pace, I offered to coordinate several aspects of his fundraising campaign," Reed says. "He accepted my offer, and now we're mapping out a multifaceted, two-year plan to hopefully raise all the money he needs to receive quality health care, including a life-saving transplant."
The film fundraiser is technically free.
"We will ask for voluntary donations at the door, either via cash or charge, in any amount people would like to give," Reed says. "We're suggesting a minimum donation of $5 per child and $10 per adult, but it's completely up to the individual.
"We expect some folks will give a dollar or two and others will offer $20 or $50 or more if they feel moved to do so," he says. "We'll also be selling raffle tickets for as little as 33 cents each, and we'll draw five numbers right before the film for a handful of valuable prizes that folks will want to win.
"There will also be a Pee-wee Herman Look-alike Contest, with really cool and valuable prize packages awarded to the Best Adult Male, Best Adult Female and Best Child Under 12 who are in costume as Pee-wee himself," Reed says. "A full 100 percent of all proceeds from admissions, raffle tickets and souvenir merchandise will go directly to a fund which is being set up specifically to cover Keith's medical expenses, and will be overseen by he and his family."
Vinnie Van Go-Go's has offered to match the first $3,000 in donations received at the door that night.
"Every donation made at the door can wind up being worth twice as much to Keith's fund," Reed says.
Why Pee-wee Herman?
"I chose this film to show because not only is it a film that both Keith and I enjoy a great deal, it is a beloved cult classic that most folks never got a chance to see on the big screen, even if they are familiar with it from cable or DVDs," Reed says. "It's also the kind of movie that small kids can enjoy as much as college students, folks my age or senior citizens.
"It's not offensive or violent. In other words, it's a wonderful example of the kind of truly family-oriented films that don't get made much anymore.
"Keith and his wife, Carrie, have a beautiful baby girl, and I wanted to make sure that this was an event that folks could bring their children to and enjoy as a group," he says. "I would love nothing more than to see the historic Lucas Theatre packed to the rafters for Keith's benefit."
From 6-6:30 p.m., the Lucas will offer half-price beer, wine and popcorn.
On Oct. 4, The Jinx will host a multi-faceted benefit event, with all proceeds going directly to Kozel's medical fund. It will include a silent auction of art from local artists and services from local businesses.
Music will be provided by DJ Basik Lee and the Savannah Sweet Tease Burlesque troupe will run a kissing booth. A raffle will be held all night, and merchandise will be available for sale.
There also will be live performances by area bands Forced Entry, Hot Plate and Niche.
Soon, Kozel's support team will launch a dedicated website at www.keithneedsakidney.com. It will serve as the hub of his fundraising efforts, and will provide detailed information on all upcoming benefits, as well as updates on his condition.
"Whether you join in my cause or if you put your energy toward someone or something else that has touched your life, we are all here together and we have the power and compassion within us to help," Kozel says. "Let's do just that and give to the world."
"Any money raised by keithneedsakidney.com or official benefit events which are coordinated through that site will go directly into a special fund which has been set up for Keith's ongoing medical expenses," Reed says. "The fund will be overseen by Keith, his wife, Carrie, and his father, Thomas.
"I realize that this is a very busy time of the year in Savannah, and there are numerous very worthwhile events that are taking place on the same night as our Pee-wee Herman film screening. However, I am hopeful that folks will realize what a wonderful opportunity this is to do something both unusual and very fun, while directly helping one of Savannah's most unique and beloved local musicians.
"Whether you already know him by name or not, Keith Kozel has been a pivotal figure in the local music scene of this town since the 1980s," Reed says, "His work is highly respected by a great many people around the world who connect him with Savannah. This is a chance for Savannah to show its appreciation and good wishes in a very tangible way."