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As host of Survivor, I’ve traveled all over the world and been dropped in the middle of some fascinating cultures, but nothing prepared me for the “world” I would enter as I walked through the front doors for my first visit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Bright colors! Smiling faces! Kids laughing and playing! Wait a second—am I in the right place? This is a hospital and research center for kids with cancer? Well, if you’ve been to St. Jude, you already know the answer. I was in the right place, and those first few moments are still the best way for me to describe my feelings about St. Jude.
Two of the first kids I met at St. Jude were 11-year-old Ali Mills and 3-year-old Emma Grace Hampton. Ali and I became fast friends as we spent the day together and did a media tour of interviews promoting a campaign with Chili’s Grill & Bar. Ali was a delight—so smart, so fun, so well-spoken about her cancer and the work being done at St. Jude. During a break, we raced through the hospital, and Ali won. Her prize was “a cute outfit,” and I think she had it picked out before we even began the race. Her mom, Nancy, is one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met, and it was easy to see where Ali’s spark for life came from.
Ali was also a bit of a big sister to Emma Grace, but Emma Grace held her own through our own series of interviews. A perpetual smile and easy giggles from Emma Grace made the afternoon one of the most loving I’ve ever had. Her mom, Trish, was as dedicated a mom as any child could ask for. The connection they shared was clear to everyone.
I kept up with Emma Grace’s progress through updates from St. Jude, and I stayed in touch with Ali through our phone calls. We talked about school, Ali’s hair growing back and which boys she liked.
Emma Grace passed away June 6, 2005, at the age of 4. I am smiling as I write this, remembering our last day together as we shared sushi. Yeah, that’s right, a 4-year old who eats sushi. That was Emma Grace.
Ali passed April 12, 2005, just two days before I was to arrive at St. Jude to see her. Ali’s impact on me is hard to share in the limited space of this column. She reminded me that every single day on this planet is a gift and that if you are not living your life every single day you are a fool. Her picture sits on my mantle. We were friends. I miss our phone calls. She inspired me then, and she inspires me now.
As I think back on my first few moments at St. Jude, I am reminded of why this facility is so vital. It is a cocoon of love that encourages all of these kids to live every single day, in spite of the cancer they are living with, while the doctors and researchers only a few doors away search tirelessly for the cures that will one day make St. Jude obsolete.
I am fully committed to St. Jude, and I ask you to make a commitment as well. Don’t put it on your ‘to do” list. Sit down, right now, reach out and help St Jude continue their work.
Jeff Probst, shown here with patient Ali Mills, has helped Chili’s Grill & Bar raise $2.5 million for St. Jude through the Create a Pepper to Fight Childhood Cancer campaign.
Reprinted from Promise magazine, autumn 2005
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