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Fans of the 2006 American Idol contest rooted for Kellie Pickler as the small-town Southern girl with a 100-watt smile who could give as good as she got to Simon Cowell. That winning smile was on full view on Friday morning as Pickler toured the halls of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and visited with patients for the very first time.
“It’s the most rewarding feeling when you walk into the room and they’re so happy to see you,” Pickler said. “I hope they know I’m just as happy to see them.”
Friday marked the second day of St. Jude’s Radio Training Seminar, an annual event designed to give musical artists and radio representatives the kick-start they need to enter the busy radiothon season.
In addition to Pickler, Chris Young, Clay Walker, Pat Green, Mark Wills, Andy Griggs, Sarah Buxton and Randy Owen of the GRAMMY® Award-winning group ALABAMA were among the country music superstars who toured St. Jude and visited with some of the children who are treated here each year for life-threatening diseases.
It was clear that Pickler has a way with kids as she knelt to hug and visit her youngest fans – a knack that may come with having a 6-year-old brother.
Pickler’s life has changed greatly since she shot to stardom last year, and she enjoyed the slow, homey rhythm of simply spending time with the kids. Along with three-time GRAMMY® nominee Pat Green, she was able to visit with patients Zackery and Jessica in the privacy of their rooms.
“It’s awesome to go in there and meet with the families and hang out with the kids and watch movies and play games and learn about them,” Pickler said. “It’s been an incredible experience.”
Pickler, in turn, called on her fans and those in the country music industry to help support the hospital.
“When you’re able to give back to your communities and organizations like St. Jude, it’s a great thing,” Pickler said. “It’s been a great experience, and I encourage anyone and everyone to help.”
That’s the point of the seminar: to get country radio and other musical formats revved up about St. Jude.
Since Randy Owen began the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids® program in 1989, more than 200 country radio stations across America have raised more than $280 million in pledges for the children of St. Jude. Today, more radio formats are joining in the cause: Adult Contemporary, Gospel, Urban AC, Lite Rock, Classic Rock, Oldies and everything in between. It’s a win-win situation for St. Jude kids.
“When we first started, who would have thought we’d still be here making a big difference in the lives of the beautiful children?” Owen said.
These yearly visits kindle the passion of radio representatives for the life-saving mission of St. Jude, but also add a bright spot to the lives of patients and their families. This means a lot to Owen.
“I want these kids to grow up and be creative and healthy … I want them to be as normal as possible,” Owen said. “I want the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers – the whole family – to understand that we really care about them.”
Singer Chris Young, a first-time visitor to the hospital, has always wanted to learn more about St. Jude, and he finally got his chance.
“This is extremely special for me,” Young said. “Long before I ever had a deal, back when I was releasing independent albums for myself, I’ve been giving to St. Jude. This has always been something I’ve wanted to do – to actually come through the hospital and visit. When they got a chance to do it with RCA, I was like, ‘Please let me go.’”
Young learned a lot on the tour and expressed his surprise that research and pharmaceutical development takes place right on the St. Jude campus—meaning that patients have quick access to new treatments.
After their tours, the country music artists stopped at the auditorium on the hospital’s campus to pose for pictures with patients and sign autographs.
Eight-year-old William, a St. Jude patient who suffers from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and his sister Emma Kay were able to meet two of their favorite artists: Kellie Pickler and Pat Green.
“I think it was so good of [these artists] to take time out of their schedules to visit these kids,” said Will’s dad, Veo. “We just really appreciated it.”
The excitement of the event buoyed the spirit of the entire family. “When you’re getting treatment, life can be a routine,” added Will’s mom, Ali. “So it’s nice to have something different like this for the kids."
The training seminar continued on Saturday where attendees heard from Les Robison, PhD, chair of St. Jude’s department of Epidemiology and Cancer Control, about his team’s efforts to pin down the causes of childhood cancer with an eye toward cancer prevention. His speech gave attendees insight into the life-saving research that takes place every day at St. Jude.
Afterward, radio representatives attended breakout sessions and roundtable discussions designed to give them the information and spark needed to go out into their communities and lead a successful radiothon.
The afternoon luncheons featured Trish Hampton, mother of St. Jude patient Emma Grace, who spoke at the general group lunch about her daughter’s journey with cancer. Trish recalled her memories of bringing Emma Grace, who was well-loved at St. Jude for her spirited dance moves, to meet Randy Owen as a special guest of a previous Country Cares seminar. After a valiant fight, 4-year-old Emma Grace lost her battle with neuroblastoma in 2005, but Trish remains grateful to the hospital that did so much for her daughter – and grateful to the radio representatives from across the country who dedicate their time and effort to the kids of St. Jude.
Country music superstar George Strait took time out from his busy 2007 tour to pay a surprise visit to St. Jude in the late afternoon. He toured the hospital and visited inpatients Daniel, Colby and Robert. He also popped in to spend a moment with St. Jude patient Palmer. “She’s got to be his biggest fan,” said Palmer’s excited dad.
GRAMMY®-Award winning artist Ronnie Milsap brought the house down as the surprise motivational speaker for the afternoon session. He referred to his bluesy tribute song “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life” in thanking the attendees for all the good they’ve done for the kids of St. Jude through the radiothon program. “What a difference you’ve made in their lives, and I thank you for that,” said Milsap. He ended his speech with a call to action that brought the crowd to its feet with cheers and claps: “Thank you, and let’s keep rolling on!”
During the final session of the day, ALSAC Chief Executive Officer John P. Moses introduced four patients and their families. The parents of Liam, Lauren, Morgan and Peter described their child’s journey with cancer in moving detail. Two-year-old Lauren personally thanked the crowd for their support, and 3-year-old Peter proudly lifted his shirt to show that his medicine line had been removed. Morgan’s mother, Pam, moved many in the crowd to tears as she described the terrible day she learned that Morgan suffered from medulloblastoma, a type of brain tumor.
This is the second year that Lisa Kaye, the morning host of country radio station KYSM in Mankato, Minnesota, has attended the Radio Training Seminar, and she was touched by what she experienced this weekend. “As an on-air personality, it’s completely different to be here in person because you take St. Jude back home to your listeners,” said Kaye, who is a mother of three young children. “It means so much to see it first-hand, and it makes you realize the power of the radiothon to do good.”
The 2007 Radio Training Seminar concluded with the annual Songwriters’ Dinner. Moses welcomed the guests in attendance and thanked Randy Owen for founding and nurturing the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids® program. “It is the kindness in his heart that has spread throughout country radio,” said Moses.
ALSAC Chief Operating Officer David L. McKee shared the stories of two young patients, Lindsey and Joel, who were treated in the 1980s at St. Jude. Back then, Lindsey captured hearts with her poems. Joel, who had lost his right arm to osteosarcoma, was a young boy who could do almost everything including golfing, playing baseball and swimming. But the one thing he jokingly said he couldn't do was clap.
Then McKee welcomed Lindsey (with her young baby in arms) and Joel onstage for everyone to see how well they're doing now as adults. Both now work for ALSAC/St. Jude.
The night concluded with rousing performances by well-known country songwriters Mac McAnally (“All These Years” and “It’s My Job”), Dave Turnbull (“Arlington”), Phil O’Donnell (“Fore She was Mama”), Danny Wells (“Check Yes or No”) and Randy Owen (“Feels So Right,” “Mountain Music” and “Angels Among Us”).
“Thank y’all on behalf of the families, children and folks at St. Jude,” said Owen to the crowd.