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Volunteers have been a tremendous reason for the success of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and never was that more evident than at its beginning.
As St. Jude approaches its 50th anniversary in 2012, and ALSAC, the hospital’s fund-raising arm, nears its half-century mark in 2007, it should be noted that there is one group who was there before either: the Ladies of St. Jude.
Created as the St. Jude Hospital Auxiliary in 1956, this group of dedicated women initially worked to raise funds for the hospital, expanding their volunteer role once the hospital officially opened. They worked alongside the Sisters of St. Joseph who were the first nursing staff of St. Jude. They worked the pharmacy. They took phone calls. They helped with meal preparation. They were responsible for picking up patients at the airport. They even took patients and their families into their own homes. They did so much that Danny Thomas, the man whose promise to St. Jude Thaddeus was the catalyst for the creation of the hospital, said in 1985, “Without the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Ladies of St. Jude, we would never have gotten the operation of the hospital off the ground.”
Thousands of volunteers’ hours (7,775 this past year alone) are devoted not just for fund-raising, but to helping the children at St. Jude. The ladies require that its active members work 80 hours per year for St. Jude, but that requirement is perfunctory as some members perform more than 400 hours of volunteer work. The group's understood motto hasn’t changed much since it was first established, when ladies were told that if they were not prepared to work, not to join.
“In a nice way we try to get that message across,” laughed Betty Christy, a past president of the Ladies of St. Jude. “There are blood, sweat and tears involved. But it is so much fun and the ultimate thing is that you know what you are working for is so worth it.”
Career members are those ladies who are working and who cannot devote as much time as active members. Sustaining members are those who have been active members in the past but have earned an “emeritus” type distinction.
Today, the ladies help staff open house events for area St. Jude Dream Home giveaways. They host an annual golf tournament for St. Jude, and they conduct an annual Christmas Card program. In 2005, the Ladies added a new event to their agenda: the Star Spangled Night Out. “It was a celebrity auction and dinner with celebrity waiters from local radio and TV," said current president Agnes Wagner. Wagner was also recently named this year’s recipient of the Sheryl K. Nienhuis Award. The award, named in honor of the late wife of former St. Jude director Arthur Nienhuis, MD, is presented to the person who most embodies the volunteer spirit that Sheryl Nienhuis demonstrated at St. Jude.
And they still volunteer at the hospital itself, making sure all the “toy chests” are filled with toys for children to pick after a procedure and being there to assist the children and families any way they can.
“It’s a great group of ladies,” said past president Debby Gage. “We have women who have retried, who have computer skills and are very sharp. It’s a great place for women who still want to do something.”
But, she added, the Ladies do not want to discourage younger members from joining as well. “We have a lot of projects that you can give different amounts of time to,” she said. "You don’t have to feel guilty if you can’t give a full day.”
The money raised by the Ladies has gone to many endeavors over the years, from transportation buses to transport patients from the stay facilities to the hospital to juke boxes on the Patient Care Center’s second floor and pieces of equipment such as dialysis machine.
"The Ladies of St. Jude are an important part of the history of this institution,” said David L. McKee, chief operating officer of ALSAC. “They were there at the very beginning. And they will be here until we can close the doors of the hospital and catastrophic disease does not threaten the life of any child."
And that is what they are here to help accomplish, said past president Marjorie Webster. “It’s been nice to get the recognition,” she said about the attention the Ladies have been getting during their 50th year. But she and all her fellow Ladies agree that the accolades are secondary to what they are here to continue doing: helping children fight childhood cancer and other diseases.