For 30 years, the country community has partnered with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN to raise money and awareness for children diagnosed with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Thanks to the genre’s support with countless radiothons, benefit concerts and marathons, among other charitable initiatives, over $800 million has been raised for the lifesaving mission of St. Jude.
The money donated from the country community over the past three decades has helped to raise the overall childhood cancer rate in the U.S. from 20 percent to 80 percent, and the survival rate of acute lymphoblastic leukemia from 4 percent to 94 percent. While huge strides have been made, there is much more the hospital hopes to accomplish globally in the coming years, including increasing the survival rates for the six most common forms of childhood cancer around the globe from 20 percent to 60 percent by 2030.
Across the globe, most children diagnosed with cancer will die. St. Jude has been hard at work to change this statistic. With the launch of an international outreach plan to reduce childhood cancer worldwide, the hospital has invested more than $100 million in the St. Jude Global program. This initiative goes hand in hand with St. Jude founder Danny Thomas’ mission that “no child should die in the dawn of life.”
It takes just one person to make a difference and get their community involved, a concept reiterated throughout the four-day 2019 Country Cares for St. Jude Kids Seminar in January. Thomas has often been quoted with a similar message: “I’d rather have a million people give me a dollar than one person give me a million dollars.” Alabama’s Randy Owen took this message to heart when first speaking with Thomas over 30 years ago.
The country partnership with St. Jude began in 1989 after a conversation between Owen and Thomas, when the actor approached the country singer for help in raising awareness for the children’s hospital. During the keynote address at Country Radio Seminar that year, Owen asked his peers to join him in the cause. Every year since, the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids Seminar invites the country radio community to Memphis to tour the hospital, meet the patients and sit in on panels featuring doctors and childhood cancer survivors in hopes to provide a better understanding of the hospital’s groundwork. Those in attendance then go back to their communities to relay St. Jude’s message and create their own radiothons for the hospital.
This year’s seminar was held Jan. 24-27, and the 30-year anniversary honored Owen’s ongoing involvement with the dedication of a patient family room. For 30 years, Owen has led the country community in the charge of annual radiothons with the participation of 200 radio stations coming together to raise money for the hospital.
“Randy exhibited his leadership and his courage, and he challenged the radio industry, and the country music industry, to make a difference,” ALSAC President and CEO Richard C. Shadyac Jr., said during a press conference at the hospital. “And to make a difference in the lives of kids that have received the most devastating news that a child could receive — that they had cancer. You are a living testament to the fact that one person can make a meaningful and substantial difference in our world.”
Upon accepting his honor, Owen touched upon the initial conception of Country Cares for St. Jude Kids. He also expressed his hope that the next generation of country artists will carry his torch and spread the hopeful message of St. Jude.
“We had an idea, and it has been very successful. I always like to say it’s about we, not me, and if we look at it that way then I think that this can go on for many years,” Owen notes. “What I did in 1989 was the simplest little thing. I just followed my heart and it was telling me that somehow [there] could be a nationwide effort to help raise money for the kids of St. Jude. So, I’m calling on you, and challenging you, to continue what we started.”
When talking with Sounds Like Nashville and other media following the press conference, the Alabama singer further discussed his dedication to raising awareness for St Jude. As he explains, it was something he was simply called to do.
“I believed [in] the power of radio. Everybody listens to the radio. When I used to listen to deejays, I would go buy whatever it was they were trying to sell me,” he explains. “In this case, we were trying to sell them the idea of giving money to the kids at St. Jude. It took a while, but there were some great, great talented people in country radio that found a formula so that it works. I think it’s something that I was meant to be given an opportunity to do.”
One walk through the colorful hospital halls and a visitor is easily convinced to help spread St. Jude’s message of hope. Since the lives of the children seeking treatment here are often disrupted for weeks or months at a time, St. Jude goes out of its way to make the hospital feel like home. Whether it’s a favorite family recipe made by the hospital’s chefs, a teen art gallery wing showcasing the patients’ struggles and triumphs, or hosting a prom for those who can’t attend one at their own school, St. Jude does their part to make sure no child is forgotten.
Brantley Gilbert was one of over 20 artists on hand throughout the 2019 Country Cares Seminar. His third time taking a tour of the hospital, he admits one visit to St. Jude will convince a person to come back.
“I remember the first time I came here, I’ve always hated hospitals and the way they smell and the way they look,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I came in here and it’s just the absolute opposite mood. It’s not a down and out thing, it’s hopeful thing. It’s an upbeat environment. These children are warriors. It makes you proud to be a part of something like this.”
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No family ever receives a bill from St. Jude. This is one of the major takeaways to Gilbert, who is a first time father himself.
“That to me is unprecedented. As a dad, I have a happy, healthy 14-month-old kid. We were blessed enough for him not to be diagnosed with anything like this. You come here and you meet these kids and some of these kids don’t know anything but fighting,” he marvels. “What kind of work went into a place that number one, never sends you an invoice, but number two has an environment when you walk into a door that says children’s cancer hospital, that you get a positive feeling? And, you get a positive feeling reflected back from these kids. They’re happy. A lot of them are really, really positive considering what’s going on in their life. That’s got me any day of the week.”
LoCash’s Preston Brust and Chris Lucas first visited St. Jude in 2011 and say it changed their lives seeing the kids “being so positive and so funny.” Fathers themselves, both Chris and Preston say their careers will always include doing something for St. Jude.
“I think about my kids the whole time I’m here and thank God that we haven’t had to go through anything like this,” Brust says. “I watch all the families. It takes you home, and makes you think of your own family the whole time you’re here and appreciate every second that you got.”
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This weekend we headed to Memphis for the 30th Anniversary #CountryCares Seminar supporting @StJude! We need your help to continue the St. Jude mission: Finding cures. Saving children. Sign up to become a monthly donor & receive the cool #ThisShirtSavesLives T-Shirt: thisshirtsaveslives.org
Every family who steps foot in St. Jude is made to feel welcome and each individual’s needs are met. Treatment, travel, housing and food is all covered for patients and their families at the hospital. Families often stay at the Target House on the St. Jude campus if their child’s treatment lasts more than three months. If these families have children who aren’t patients, they can attend a local school nearby.
“It’s a team you get here,” Lucas notes. “It’s not one doctor. It’s not one person. It’s a team of people that become your support system. It blows my mind how we’re walking around and hanging out with some of the kids. They go through way worse stuff than we’ve ever been through and stay positive and stay energetic.”
LoCash’s visit to St. Jude this year had the duo brainstorming ways they could do more for the hospital. With plans to raise money throughout their career, Brust explained that they want to build an “I Love This Life” lookout tower and a LoCash Lab. “We have to raise so much money that we start building more wings,” Brust adds. “Anything is possible, especially here where everybody is open to ideas.”
The message of St. Jude has been getting national attention thanks to the “This Shirt Saves Lives” campaign. The t-shirt idea was conceived by two former patients and has numerous country stars sporting the trendy black shirt to raise awareness for St. Jude. They’re getting their fans involved too, as those who donate $20 per month receive the t-shirt as a thank you.
“Country music fans care, and they care deeply, and they’re always there to help,” Hunter Hayes asserts. “They’re always there for important causes, especially this one. We are one big family and the general approach is, a family would help a family. Every little bit helps, there’s no such thing as too little. I would wave the flag for this place anywhere and everywhere that I possibly could, share this message of not only what they do here, but again, what they do everywhere. There’s such a spirit of excellence, there’s such an above and beyond protocol here. It’s a beacon of light in so many ways, to so many different parts of the world.”
Both Hayes and Runaway June stress the importance of using their platform as country singers for good. Each act says they’ll share their St. Jude experience with fans, adding that they have a responsibility to do so.
“Spreading the message of getting Country Cares involved is so important. This kind of event is really important to educate us on what’s going on here so we can go out and spread the message to more and more people,” Naomi Cooke explains. “It’s really important that we get to come back here and see the new developments and the new research that’s happening and meet more children and get re-inspired and learn more so that we can be more effective.”
Jake Owen has been spreading the message of St. Jude for years by hosting his annual hometown benefit in Vero Beach, Florida, as well as getting involved in similar events held by Darius Rucker. He credits Alabama’s Randy Owen in instilling these morals and beliefs in himself when accepting the Randy Owen Angels Among Us Award at the final evening of Country Cares for St. Jude Kids Seminar.
“I’m just glad that I can be one of the guys that keeps pushing forward as you said, Randy. I promise if I could be here until I’m 99, I will,” he says upon accepting his honor. “Thank you all for letting me be here for this. This is probably the most prestigious award I’ll ever been given, and I very much appreciate it.”
Owen continued to explain that it’s his duty as a country music entertainer to give back to the community, especially to an organization like St. Jude.
“There’s more to what we do than just singing songs. How do you help people? How do you give back? I know that by being an example and being a leader in that, hopefully others will follow,” he reflects. “That’s what I was taught by guys like Randy and so many others that have come before me.”
He continues, “I just love the fact that [St. Jude is] presenting a place for families to come and not have to worry anymore. They can find help here. There are so many families that don’t know what to do, they don’t know how to get answers. They don’t have the money. To be able to come to a place like this, be taken care of, to be informed — I don’t find anything else that’s as valuable as St. Jude.”
For more information on St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and to donate to help end childhood cancer, click here.