Q: What is St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital?
Thomas: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was built by my father in 1962, and its mission is to save children’s lives. We do that by the fact that we are a research and treatment center under one roof, which is very unique. We are the only one in the country that has an equal research and treatment center, so that each child who comes to the research center at St. Jude has a scientist and a doctor working on their case. Another thing that makes St. Jude very unique is that all of our scientific research is sent out throughout the country, so that all the doctors in America have an opportunity to use our research and our discoveries, so that we’re really impacting the lives of kids in every community in the country.
Q: How did the name St. Jude come about?
Thomas: St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless cases, and my father wanted to build a place that would help children who were hopeless and helpless. That’s why he used the name, but it’s not a Catholic hospital. In fact it’s certainly not that, it’s has no denomination.
Q: What is your role with the organization?
Thomas: I am the national outreach director, which means I spend a great deal of my time reaching out to corporations, to the media, and trying to get as much exposure for the work of St. Jude and to also raise funds for it.
Q: Have you been involved since the beginning?
Thomas: No, I was a kid when it started. But, since my father’s death in 1991, my sister, brother and I have pretty much taken on his job. For the last 17 years I’ve been working very hard for it. [At] St. Jude no child is ever turned away if a family can’t pay, which means we pay for their housing, their travel, their food, and all their treatments for as long as it takes to make a child well.
Because of that, we have to raise $670 million this year, and this is a very tipped economy, so it’s quite a challenge to raise that kind of money. That’s why the Thanks and Giving Program, which is taking place right now, is so important to us.
Q: Can you tell me a little about the Thanks and Giving Campaign?
Thomas: Thanks and Giving Campaign is a wonderful coming together of stars, like Jennifer Aniston, Robin Williams, Antonio Banderas and Jason Taylor, the great NFL star, and of media and retail. It’s a very simple program really. What we’re saying to America is, “Give thanks for the healthy kids in your life, and give to those who are not” by just adding a donation at the register whenever you check out at any of our partners.
And we have great partners: Target, Kay Jewelers, CVS/pharmacy, KMart, Domino’s Pizza, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dollar General, Williams-Sonoma, Brooks Brothers, Ann Taylor, Sak’s Fifth Avenue. Just wonderful, wonderful partners, and at all those stores, there’s 50 of them actually, they’re going to ask you, “Would you like to add a donation for the kids at St. Jude?” Even a dollar helps, because the great thing about our organization is 85 cents of every dollar we raise goes directly to our research and treatment. Or you can donate online at StJude.org.
Q: What’s the most moving experience you've had since becoming involved with St. Jude?
Thomas: The first time I went there [St. Jude] after my father had died, I was really scared to go inside, because I knew I was going to just be overwhelmed with memories of him, and I didn’t want to cry in front of the children. So I cried in the car for a while and then I went inside. There was a big party going on with little kids running around in party hats, and there was cake and ice cream, and streamers, and confetti — it was adorable. I said to the nurse, “Whose birthday is it?” She said, “Oh, it’s not a birthday party, it’s an off-chemo party.”
It was so touching. Here were these little children with all that they were going through, celebrating another child’s turn for the better. And the parents and grandparents standing nearby with tears in their eyes because they felt if this child could get well maybe their beloved child would too. It so moved me, and it made me feel so full of hope and I knew then that my father’s dream was something that I would be inspired by as well.
Q: When there are so many causes out there, and the tough economy, why is it important for people to support this cause?
Thomas: There’s probably nothing more tragic than an infant or a young child with cancer. They didn’t smoke, they haven’t done anything to deserve this, and here they are with a cancer that can kill them. What we do at St. Jude is study childhood cancer and create treatments that will save children’s lives. Our work impacts the lives of children in every community in America.
Doctors all over the country send us their toughest cases because they can only work with what they know. We are working on what they don’t know because we are a research center as well as a hospital. My father made a promise that no child would ever be turned away if their family is unable to pay. We’re saving the lives of America’s children. And so we say to America, “Help us."
We all know the economy is bad but we also know that someday it will come back. If you have a sick child you don’t know if their health will come back. And this is what we are fighting for. There’s no recession for the sick children of this country. The recession is something that happens someplace else. But, at St. Jude, we’re not going to close programs, we’re not going to close our doors, and we’re not going to say to a mom of a sick child, "We can’t afford to take care of your child and save your child’s life." What we’re talking about here is life and death, and that’s why St. Jude is so important to this country.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thomas: Yes, I would like to remind everyone to please go out and shop at all of our partners and add a dollar to your purchase for the kids of St. Jude. As we say, “Give thanks for the healthy children in your life and give to those who are not.” And I hope that all of you and your families have a healthy and happy holiday.
Interviewed by Giacinta Pace, NBC News