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St. Jude Children's Research Hospital became the center of the country music world January 13 – 15, when more than 800 country music artists, music industry executives and radio station personnel gathered in Memphis, Tennessee, to tour and visit the hospital as part of the 22nd annual Country Cares for St. Jude Kids® seminar.
Led by Country Cares founder and Country Music Hall-of-Famer Randy Owen, nearly 30 country artists visited with patients and families. Artists included Ronnie Dunn, Justin Moore, Katie Armiger, Jake Owen, Casey James, Jennette McCurdy, Randy Montana, Josh Kelley, the Grascals and Darren Warren.
"This is my first time to actually come to St. Jude," said Ronnie Dunn, former member of the powerhouse country duo Brooks and Dunn and now a solo artist. "Like most people, I expect, I was a little apprehensive, but this place is pretty much the opposite of what you expect. You know that nothing but good can come out of here. When I go home, I'm going to tell my wife and my kids how lucky we are to be healthy, and how lucky we are to have a facility like this available to everyone."
Added singer Justin Moore: "It's crazy to me, the strength that the kids have. They are always smiling. I get the flu and I'm ticked at the world. But these kids, they put it all in perspective. It makes you feel very blessed for what you have."
"Heaven on earth" was how Darren Warren described his return to the hospital as a country music artist, more than 12 years since he was once a patient. "It was very humbling to come back and be on the other side of things and be able to help the patients."
Warren's visit meant a lot to Jeanna, the mother of 7-year-old Ella, who is being treated for a rare cancer of the adrenal glands. Meeting Warren has given her courage and hope, she said.
"It means a lot for anyone to come to St. Jude and visit," Jeanna said. "It's great to have the country stars come and experience St. Jude so they can then take that and share it with the world and help raise funds. It means the world to us as patient families."
For Owen, this year's visit was even more emotional as it was his first since his diagnosis and successful treatment for prostate cancer. He said that the kids of St. Jude were constantly on his mind during his treatment for the disease.
Owen, inspired by a meeting with St. Jude founder Danny Thomas more than 20 years ago, encouraged his fellow country music artists, their fans and country music radio stations to be part of a new effort to raise funds and awareness for St. Jude. Country Cares was born and today it is one of the most successful radio fundraising efforts in the United States.
Owen said he is proud of the commitment everyone in the country music industry has shown toward supporting St. Jude. "It makes me feel like there is more to this music we play than the music. There is a brotherhood, a sisterhood—we pay attention to our fellow man."
Supporting St. Jude is important to the members of top bluegrass band, the Grascals. A portion of the proceeds from their latest CD benefits St. Jude and the group's new video "I am Strong" features St. Jude patients. "This is our fourth visit to the hospital and it gets better every time," said guitarist Jamie Johnson. "There's nothing but positive words you can say about St. Jude."
At breakfast on Saturday, attendees heard from St. Jude patient and dad, Colin and Ian, who many met during last year's seminar. Ian thanked participants for the donations they raise to support the hospital and then announced, to loud cheers, that Colin is in remission and that on Friday they had received "the best news ever: stable, no disease growth."
"A year ago, he couldn't say a word," said Ian. "And today he tells knock-knock jokes. Your devotion makes a difference for our son."
Following breakfast, seminar participants attended roundtable discussions on the teamwork of sales and programming elements that are key to conducting a successful radiothon as well as on creating special side events to raise funds for St. Jude, reaching out to listeners to become Partners In Hope® and raising funds in a still-struggling economy.
Marci Braun, music director and assistant program director for US99.5 in Chicago and a member of the St. Jude Radio Advisory Board, said the seminar gives radio stations a forum to share valuable information on conducting radiothons for St. Jude. "It's all about sharing because we're all there for a common cause: to raise money for St. Jude. We're sharing our ideas on how to make radiothons better so we can help St. Jude."
The radio station personnel also heard from former football great and NFL sportscaster Joe Theismann. Theismann electrified the crowd with a rousing speech, urging country radio and the county music industry to push on in supporting the fight against childhood cancer and other catastrophic diseases.
"We have counted on you to help us take care of those kids and that's what you've done," said Theismann, a long-time supporter of St. Jude. "You continue to fight the fight because it's not for us, it's for the little ones."
But even a football legend couldn't compete with the real stars of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital: the patients and their families who generously share their stories of hope. The Meet the Patients session is a highlight of the Country Cares seminar and this year participants met Ella, 7, who is being treated for a rare cancer of the adrenal gland; Owen, 5, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL); Daija, 9, who is being treated for severe aplastic anemia; and Cassidy, 7, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
Meet the Patients
Cassidy was first diagnosed with ALL when she was 3, just six weeks after her mother died from cancer. After a relapse, doctors discovered she had a secondary cancer, acute myeloid leukemia. Cassidy, even with treatment, continued to relapse. "I remember lying down and thinking that I'd just have to bury her with her mom," said Chad, Cassidy's father. Then doctors referred Cassidy to St. Jude.
"We'd been praying for a miracle and we felt God sent us St. Jude. That's our miracle," said Chad. "This third bone marrow transplant, what's amazing, is that six months ago it was not available. This is new here and, as of last week, Cassidy is leukemia free for right now. We can't thank you enough,"said Chad. "It's because of people like you that we can have hope."
Sharon, Daija's mom, said that the employees of St. Jude embraced her family as soon as they walked in the doors for treatment.
"I don't know what we'd do if we didn't have St. Jude," she said. "I can't explain the depth of our gratitude," said Kelly, Owen's mom. "It's been so amazing."
Kelly said that at his last birthday, Owen requested that his friends bring a donation to St. Jude instead of a present and his sister is asking for the same "gifts" at her upcoming birthday.
"Even if a birthday party raises $100, that's OK. Everything helps. But if more people do it, than it all adds up."
Jeanna, Ella's mom, said she is most grateful to be at St. Jude, where "I get to spend every moment of every day with her here at St. Jude, where they take such good care of us."
Following the Meet the Patients session, seminar attendees concluded their weekend with the annual Songwriters' Dinner. Each year, the Songwriters' Dinner is a special treat that features some of the top songwriters in country music, sharing stories about the famous songs they wrote and performing them.
Joining Randy Owen on stage for this year were songwriters Rivers Rutherford, Aimee Mayo, Roger Murrah and Sonny Curtis. Each took turns playing some of their big hits such as "These Are My People" (Rutherford), "Amazed" (Mayo), "Don't Rock the Juke Box" (Murrah) and "I Fought the Law" (Curtis). Owen closed the inspiring weekend with "Angels Among Us," encouraging the crowd of radio personnel to return to their communities and voice their support for St. Jude.
Prior to the performances, Richard C. Shadyac Jr., CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising organization of St. Jude, thanked the crowd for attending seminar weekend.
"We appreciate each and every one of you," he told the group. "And we depend on each and every one of you. It costs $1.6 million a day to run St. Jude and we can only do that lifesaving work because of people like you. You are truly making a difference in the lives of children everywhere."
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