A catwalk to remember

The Shaker family has been a part of St. Jude since the beginning. And throughout the years, they've continued their support with an annual St. Jude Fashion Show in Chicago.

 

Chicago has always been a friend to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The Windy City is where ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, was formed in 1957. It’s where the first fundraiser — an opening-night movie premiere for I’ll See You In My Dreams, starring St. Jude founder Danny Thomas — was held. And it’s the home of the Shaker family. 

Joseph Shaker was a young businessman of Lebanese decent when he was approached by Danny to help raise funds for his dream that was taking shape in Memphis, Tenn. Shaker would go on to serve on the ALSAC/St. Jude Boards of Directors and Governors, and his family would take up the mantle of helping to raise funds and awareness for the hospital. 

The devotion of the Shaker family is manifested today in many ways, not the least of which is the annual St. Jude Fashion Show, which celebrated its 23rd anniversary in 2017.

 
 

The fashion show was attended by more than 1,100 and raised more than $443,000 in November 2017. That’s a far cry from the very first fashion show, an event arranged to entertain the wives of board members in town for the annual ALSAC convention. 

“It was really just to entertain the wives,” said Cathy Shaker Breit, daughter of Joseph Shaker. “My mother and sister and sisters-in-law organized a fashion show in conjunction with the convention. There were maybe 100 to 150 people there, but it was very nice and everyone had fun.”

The Shaker family made the decision to bring the show back every year and to incorporate a fundraising element. Though the totals in those early days were meager by comparison to today, raising $9,000 that first year, the tenacity of the organizers has proven the event’s value.

“It started very small, just a little bit at a time,” Breit said. “It was basically our family and our friends. But the event has snowballed over time into what it is now.”

 
 

Fashion show committee member and Project Runway contestant Peach Carr (second from left) with her guests sporting Peach Carr designed bags.

Throughout its history, the fashion show has raised nearly $5 million to support St. Jude, and organizers work nearly year round to ensure its success.

“It’s an enormous amount of work, it’s a year of work,” said Breit, whose family is still very involved in the operation. “There’s very little break in the action because the expectation is so high. The bar continues to go up a notch.”

The popularity of the event and the dedication of the Shaker family is the legacy of Joseph Shaker’s commitment to Danny Thomas, who was the son of Lebanese immigrants and traveled the country to meet with leaders of Syrian and Lebanese heritage to help realize his dream. 

“They were all extremely impassioned by, not only the cause but by Danny Thomas,” Breit said. “He was an amazing personality and they were all so close to their homeland. It didn’t take much selling.”

The Lebanese immigrant community in Chicago was tightly knit around families, churches and social organizations. As Joseph became more involved with ALSAC and the mission of St. Jude, so did his family and friends. 

I was a little girl when all this happened but I think for all us early families, it was just part of the fabric of what we talked about, what we did. We used to go door-to-door with the canisters and collect quarters. We would have a little fundraiser at our school and raise $23.
Cathy Shaker Breit, daughter of Joseph Shaker and co-chair of the St. Jude Fashion Show

In addition to Breit’s work with the annual fashion show, several members of the Shaker and Breit families serve on the ALSAC/St. Jude Boards of Directors and Governors, and many of the third generation of supporters donated their summers to volunteer at St. Jude.

Breit's daughter, a doctor, as well as a niece who is in medical school, both completed internships at St. Jude. Breit’s youngest son is on the St. Jude Young Professional Committee in Chicago and is very involved at a local level. 

“My three brothers, my sister and I were very fortunate and lucky to grow up with ALSAC in our home,” Breit said. “What we have been able to do is nothing compared to what the charity has done for us. It is our joy that our descendants are continuing on that path.”

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