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Danny Thomas would have said it was the divine hand of St. Jude that had brought St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and a sorority called Epsilon Sigma Alpha (ESA) together.
That’s because for more than 30 years, ESA has been one of the most dedicated groups that St. Jude has worked with.
This week at its international convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, ESA is celebrating another year of helping children. Terre Thomas, member of the ALSAC/St. Jude Board of Directors and Governors and daughter of Danny Thomas, the hospital’s founder, serves as the convention’s keynote speaker every year.
Each year, thousands of ESA members give their time to Captured for Kids® events, radiothons, galas, canister drives — anything to help St. Jude save the lives of children with catastrophic diseases. The group is St. Jude’s largest third-party contributor, raising an astounding $70 million in cash and pledges since its first fund-raisers.
How it all started
ESA’s partnership with St. Jude in battling childhood cancer resulted from the efforts one of the sorority's own cancer survivors, along with the initiative of some St. Jude Board members.
Judy Lester, an ESA member from Indiana, met Danny Thomas in 1969 at a St. Jude event in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Lester was recuperating from her own bout with cancer. She introduced herself to Danny and asked if there were some way she could support the St. Jude mission.
“I was given another chance at life and I wanted to help save other lives,” Lester said.
Danny advised her to talk with Michael F. Tamer, ALSAC’s first national executive director. She did, and began working at the ALSAC headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana.
At the same time, St. Jude Board member Jim Maloof had convinced ESA chapters in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana to raise funds for St. Jude.
Soon, Lester became an officer of ESA International, overseeing the work of the entire organization. It was then that she suggested something new: that ESA adopt St. Jude as a national project, not just a project for different state chapters.
ESA acted on Lester's suggestion, creating a partnership with the hospital and making Danny and Maloof Honorary Sisters in the sorority.
How ESA helps St. Jude
The first national ESA event was known as the “Million Dollar Bike Ride.” ESA members in every state hosted bike rides to raise money for St. Jude. “We had bike rides in Washington, D.C., New York and coast to coast,” Lester said. “It just grew and grew.”
And it continued to grow as ESA’s role in helping St. Jude evolved. “Our goal was $1 million,” said Lester, who is now an emeritus member of the ALSAC/St. Jude Board. “And who would ever, ever have dreamed that it would balloon to this.”
The hospital’s fourth floor, which houses the St. Jude Bone Marrow Transplant area, was endowed by ESA International in 2000. Previously, the organization endowed the fourth floor of the ALSAC tower.
Until his death in 1991, Danny attended almost every ESA convention. That year, Terre stepped into her father’s role and also became an Honorary Sister. It is an honor she accepted with pride.
“They have been with St. Jude since the ‘70s and have given us so much support for our beloved hospital and cherished children, Terre said. “They are the most hard-working group of people who have dedicated themselves to my father’s dream that 'no child should die in the dawn of life.' I enjoy being with them every summer at their convention as their keynote speaker and Honorary Sister in ESA.”