A new Bible trivia TV game show that puts modern twists on its questions – what verse did NFL quarterback Tim Tebow paint on his face? – has led a California family to a $100,000 finale that airs Oct. 18 and already has produced thousands of dollars in winnings for a Buffalo research facility.
The money is going to the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute, which is trying to find a cure for the disease that killed the California family’s young son, as well as the son of Buffalo Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.
“On one level, it’s heartbreaking, because of all that it has cost us,” said Christina Levasheff, who appeared on the GSN network’s “American Bible Challenge” with her husband and family friend and assistant pastor Dean Bobar. “On another level, it’s redemptive. I carry this intense joy, but it’s sobered because of all that it’s cost. In some ways, it makes it a little bit sweeter.”
Answers to questions posed by comedian host Jeff Foxworthy have been coming easily to the team, which must figure out Biblical references framed in pop culture forms, like a tweet or a status update. In addition to having an assistant pastor on the team, Levasheff’s husband, Drake, is a college administrator who is earning his doctorate in early Christian history, and Levasheff is an evangelical Christian who has published a memoir, “Eyes That See.”
She knew the John 16:33 passage that Tebow, an athlete known for his faith, referred to in one of his “eye black” paint jobs on game day. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” is a verse she said she uses often when she speaks at churches about her experience.
The show on GSN, formerly the Game Show Network, broadcasts at 8 p.m. Thursdays. It takes a respectful approach to the stories behind contestants’ passion for their charities.
“They do a montage of each team ahead of time. They also showed clips of Judson,” Levasheff said of her son, who died in 2007 just before his third birthday. “Then you’re able to move into the fun play. Everybody watching knows what you’re playing for.”
Two of three shows have aired, attracting an audience of 2.3 million and earning $40,000 for “Team Judson’s Legacy.” In the finale, which airs in a couple of weeks, Levasheff aims to raise $100,000 for a lab in the Kelly Research Institute, a University at Buffalo affiliate in the downtown medical corridor.
The Levasheffs, who live in Irvine, Calif., discovered Buffalo when the nonprofit that Jim and Jill Kelly started contacted them. Since 2008, the summer after her son died, she and her husband have come to Ellicottville for a leukodystrophy symposium and family support gathering with expenses paid by the Hunter’s Hope Foundation.
Last year, the foundation helped found the institute to focus on disorders related to the dysfunction of the fatty white nerve coating in the brain, myelin. Krabbe disease, the resulting affliction that struck Hunter Kelly and Judson, causes motor skills to malfunction and ultimately leads to death.
The research focus inspired Levasheff’s game show ambition. All contestants must dedicate their winnings to a charity. She wants a legacy for her son and to help fund and expand a lab within the institute devoted to repairing myelin.
“He was really bright and really articulate, and you would have never imagined there was a deadly disease lurking in his body,” she said of Judson. “He was missing an enzyme in his body, so toxins were building up, and at some point it just triggers disease onset. … In a matter of five months, he went completely paralyzed, blind and mute.”
While this isn’t Levasheff’s first game show – she once won about $600 on “Let’s Make a Deal” – she has been doing her best work with her son in mind.
“That’s the coolest thing,” she said. “You’re not playing for yourself.”