When Jairo Alvarez was a small boy he prayed every night to a small statue of St. Jude Thaddeus that presided over his father’s bedside table, thousands of miles from where his career path would eventually lead him. On that farm in Sonsón, a town in the mountains of Colombia, Alvarez learned from his father many things, but one bit of wisdom he has carried with him always: in order to receive, one has to give.

Alvarez couldn’t know then that the advice imparted to him by his father, and those prayers to St. Jude, would come to hold such a profound meaning to him later in life. But as he visited St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to accept the Volunteer of the Year award, the coincidences that led him here seemed meant to be.

For more than 10 years Alvarez has built the St. Jude Dream Home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to raise money to support the lifesaving mission of St. Jude. To date, his company, Alvarez Construction Company, has raised $11 million for the Dream Home program.

This fundraising feat is especially notable considering Alvarez didn’t get into the business of building houses until he was 52 years old. Now, more than 20 years since its inception, the Alvarez Construction Company is the largest builder in Baton Rouge. And it’s been helping St. Jude all along.

Alvarez first learned about the St. Jude Dream Home program when he was a fledgling builder and the inaugural Dream Home was being built in nearby Shreveport, Louisiana. He didn’t have the financial resources to contribute to the effort, but was compelled by the St. Jude mission and knew he wanted to help in whatever way he could. So, with his family in tow, he joined the cause and did the landscaping of the St. Jude Dream Home, free of charge.

Since that first home, the Dream Home campaign has grown to comprise homes built across the country, and continues to expand. The homes, valued between $300,000 and $700,000, offer participants the chance to win while supporting the lifesaving research and treatment done at St. Jude, one of the world’s premier pediatric cancer research centers. 

Founded by Danny Thomas in 1962, St. Jude has treated children from all 50 states and from countries all over the world. And through the International Outreach Program (IOP), St. Jude strives to improve the survival rate of children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases worldwide by sharing knowledge, technology and organizational skills. The IOP helps hospitals in other countries develop protocols for treating children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. St. Jude physicians serve as mentors to physicians at these partner sites and consult on difficult cases. In this way, sick children can receive St. Jude treatment without the disruption of having to travel to the hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Alvarez is glad that by giving to St. Jude, he is helping not only the children of this country, but also the children of the world. As an immigrant, Alvarez feels a noble sense of appreciation to a country that has given so much to him and his family. As he watched his children grow up and attend college, he knew there was no way he would ever be able to repay what America had given him. But giving to St. Jude has become his way of doing just that.

Coincidentally, Alvarez’s sense of indebtedness—and how he’s demonstrated his gratitude—recalls the story of Danny Thomas, and how St. Jude came to be.

Born to immigrant parents, Thomas was always grateful to this country for having bestowed upon his family the gifts of freedom. When he was an actor struggling to take his career to the next level, he turned to the church. He asked of St. Jude Thaddeus, “help me find my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.”

In the years that followed, Thomas’ career flourished through films and television, and he became an internationally known entertainer. He remembered his pledge to build a shrine to St. Jude.

He began by founding ALSAC, the fundraising organization of St. Jude, whose inception began as a request of Thomas’ to his fellow Americans of Arabic-speaking heritage. He asked them to support St. Jude as a means of giving back to this country, and also of honoring their immigrant forefathers who had first come to America.

When discussing Thomas, Alvarez feels a kinship that elicits a great sense of emotion in him, because Thomas embodied that which his own father had always taught Alvarez to be. And he understands the struggles that Thomas’ family faced as they made a life in their new country.

Alvarez arrived to America with $100 in his pocket and unable to speak a word of English. He spent his first years in this country working hard jobs and saving every penny he earned, all the while practicing the words in his English dictionary. Within three-and-a-half years, he had learned the language well enough to earn an honors degree from the Albany Business College. And, like Thomas, he knew that it would be just a matter of time before his hard work paid off. Now, Alvarez is not only the head of a thriving construction company and philanthropist to a cause he cherishes, but he is also a Senior Olympic athlete and published author.

But Alvarez is not in it for the fame. In fact, he says he can’t believe he’s in Memphis to accept the Volunteer of the Year award because he feels like he hasn’t done anything … he just came forward with an idea, and a willingness to help. “My only regret,” he says, “is that I can’t do more for St. Jude.”

July 2009