When walking through the halls of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one almost forgets they’re at a hospital. The walls are painted vibrant colors while the scenery evokes the four seasons. Children’s games are spotted in the waiting rooms and laughter is heard throughout the hallways. Big smiles are met by the staff, who are often pulling their young patients around in little red wagons. This is not a typical hospital setting, but then again St. Jude is not your average hospital.
St. Jude works hard to provide comfort and hope to families who are going through one of the most difficult times in their lives — a child’s cancer diagnosis. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital works to treat and defeat childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Additionally, families never receive a bill from St. Jude. Treatment, travel, housing and food is all covered for patients and their families at the hospital.
The vision for St. Jude began in the 1950s by actor Danny Thomas, but the seeds for what would become the hospital were planted decades prior when he was a struggling actor. In a time of desperation he turned to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. He vowed that when he found success as an actor he would open a shrine and dedicate it to St. Jude. The very next day he received a role in a commercial and his career quickly built up from there.
Thomas never forgot his promise and on Feb. 4, 1962, he fulfilled that pledge when St. Jude opened its doors in Memphis. Founded at a time when the survival rate for childhood cancer was 20 percent, the groundbreaking research done at St. Jude has increased that survival rate to 80 percent today. The work at St. Jude is far from done, though, as Thomas’ vision that “no child should die in the dawn of life” remains a mantra for the hospital long after his death in 1991. While cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease in U.S. kids today, the statistics are much higher in other parts of the world.
“It’s 1962 again around the globe,” Richard Shadyac Jr., CEO of ALSAC, the awareness and fundraising organization of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, explains. “When we opened our doors, the survival rates around the United States were around 20 percent for kids with cancer. That’s the global cancer survival rate. So four in five kids pass away. It’s 1962 for them. So it’s on us to change those odds.”
The country music community is working to change these odds thanks to a partnership started by Alabama’s Randy Owen. For 29 years, Country Cares for St. Jude Kids has raised more than $750 million for the hospital and Owen is far from stopping there.
“Our goal is a billion,” Owen said on Saturday (Jan. 13), during a performance at the Peabody Memphis as part of the annual Country Cares for St. Jude Kids songwriter’s dinner. “I hope I live to see it.”
Brad Paisley, who was named the 2018 recipient of the Randy Owen Angels Among Us Award for his lasting contributions to the hospital, praised Owen for his work with St. Jude and for raising awareness in the country community.
“This award means more than anything I’ve been given,” he told the audience upon accepting his award. “This is the kind of place that changes you. It refocuses what’s important in life the moment you walk through these doors and it’s all because of him that all of us, in this line of work, have anything to do with this place.”
Paisley’s views on St. Jude are shared by countless country artists who spent the weekend visiting patients at the hospital. Jerrod Niemann, Cam, Drake White, Danielle Bradbery, Cale Dodds, Jillian Jacqueline and Devin Dawson, among others, discussed their time with countless children receiving treatment at St. Jude. While some got emotional sharing their experience, others vowed to bring awareness of the hospital into their communities.
Families never receive a bill from St. Jude and the hospital also pays for treatment, travel, housing and food. This is one of the things that struck Cam most about her visit.
“It is your responsibility as a human being, as a citizen of the country world, to give back,” she tells Sounds Like Nashville and other reporters. “The fact that people don’t have to pay, the fact that their families can come and they don’t have to pay for housing. The fact that these medicines are developed in house. The research that comes out of here . . . it’s a really incredible, amazing incubator for hope and answers that [don’t] exist many other places.”
One word that came up time and time again when discussing the hospital was “hope.” Whether it was the hopeful attitude throughout the colorful halls or the staff that will do anything they can to put a smile on their patients’ faces, hope was all around the hospital walls.
“It encompasses so much more than just music, and to see the footprints that all of our heroes have left behind, it’s our duty to keep that going,” Niemann notes. “You always hear hope and St. Jude come hand in hand. You realize that that’s the truth.”
Jillian Jacqueline made her first visit to St. Jude this month and she describes the hospital as “a warm, happy place.” She says the experience has made her want to get more involved and raise awareness for St. Jude with country fans.
“I’m just blown away. I feel like this beacon of hope, like I have to go and tell everybody I know that these kids need any help that they can get,” she confesses. “I think it changes you, and I think it puts into perspective why what I do can be so much more powerful than just the songs I write. The people that listen to my music will hopefully also care about what I care about, and if I can use my music to have this platform to spread the word, that’s massively life changing, because I’m spreading the message of hope, and I’m hopefully telling people, this is not just another charity. It’s so crucial for us to be a part of.”
Cale Dodds felt the same way, getting emotional when discussing his visit and family members who fought and lost their battle with cancer. His visit to St. Jude was an uplifting, albeit touching experience.
“The sky gets bluer. You don’t have a bad day after experiencing stuff like that,” he says of childhood cancer. “Kids graduate here. They have proms here. You think about so much [while at St. Jude] that I didn’t know existed. I appreciate it so much.”
Meanwhile, Drake White, Danielle Bradbery and Devin Dawson share that their visit to St. Jude affected them greatly. While inspiration for songwriting comes from everywhere, each artist said it’s likely that their experience at the hospital will seep into their music. “There’s no way you cannot be inspired by the energy of this place,” Dawson notes.
White and Bradbery agree, adding that there is a distinct magic at St. Jude. “Walking through, doing a tour in the labs, and seeing the kids, and just thinking, and looking at the parents, and the brothers and sisters. Everything, everywhere you look, is an inspiration for life, music, anything,” Bradbery explains.
“I’ve written a couple things down on my phone, but ‘Magic’ stands out to me,” White tells Bradbery. “That’s a cool song and thought. Don’t steal it.”
Several artists have already written songs that have been inspired by St. Jude. Proceeds from Smith and Wesley’s new single “Superman For a Day” will go directly to the hospital. Meanwhile, Lance Carpenter and Lonestar’s Richie McDonald penned a song called “Last Night In Memphis.” Although the song has yet to be made available, Carpenter says once released, all proceeds will also go to St. Jude.
The “This Shirt Saves Lives” campaign is also getting a push from country artists and has raised over one million dollars for St. Jude as part of its Partners In Hope program. Donors who give $20 per month to support the hospital will receive the t-shirt as a thank you. The idea for the shirt was conceived by two former patients, Jessica and Scott, and has exceeded expectations. But, there is still work to be done.
“One in five kids in the United States are still going to pass away from cancer. So that’s unacceptable to us,” Shadyac notes. “We want to make sure everybody knows that, and when you wear this shirt and it says, ‘This shirt saves lives,’ when you contribute to St. Jude, they’re finding cures and that means saving lives. We’re trying to bring people in any way that we possibly can.”
For more information on St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and to donate to help end childhood cancer, click the donate button below.