Standing among keychains, mugs, stickers and other St. Jude branded items is a sales associate with the warmest smile you’ve ever seen.
Janice Ivory is the owner of that smile.
She works at the ALSAC/St. Jude Gift Shop, located on the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and greets all who enter its doors with the kindness and welcome that St. Jude has held paramount since its founding in 1962.
"I feel like I have a giant family," she mused before naming off patients she’s known over the years. Joel, Lindsey, Tayde, Gabriela … the list goes on.
When Janice first started working at St. Jude, there were two buildings on campus.
Today, the St. Jude campus includes the Kay Research and Care Center, Chili’s Care Center, Patient Care Center and Danny Thomas Research Center, just to name a few.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the commitment to inclusion that Danny Thomas envisioned when he founded a hospital for all kids, regardless of race, religion or financial status.
As a black child who grew up not far from St. Jude in the 1960s, Janice knew what was at stake.
Whites-only hospitals throughout the South refused to treat black patients, and schools were almost entirely segregated.
A racialized social caste system made it difficult to manage friendships with people of another race.
Janice recalled growing up and playing with two Caucasian boys who were friends of her family, and the limitations they encountered.
"We would run and try and play in the front and they would say ‘Stay in the back,’" remembered Janice.
When we got older my dad told us that he (the boy’s father) could not be seen over at our house, and my dad could not be seen with him, because the people who knew my dad would be upset, and the people who knew him would be upset.
In 1968, another reminder of the stark realities of racial injustice arrived at her doorstep — the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It happened on a motel balcony just miles from where St. Jude is located and Janice lived, and it changed everything.
“I remember how sad they were,” she said, speaking of her parents at that time.
When St. Jude was built and began admitting patients of all races, it was met with mixed reception.
Janice remembers this like it was yesterday.
When I would go out and about I would hear people saying ‘That man (Danny Thomas) is taking all those kinds of people and there’s no telling what’s going to happen.’
If you walk in the gift shop on any given day, you’ll find a welcoming Janice behind the counter or walking around stocking the shelves, embodying that spirit of inclusion at every turn.
A family might be stopping into the gift shop to pick up a sweatshirt because they’ve just driven six hours to St. Jude and didn’t have enough time to pack warm clothing.
Or, it could be a lifelong supporter, whose dream it’s been to visit the campus in person, and wants to commemorate the occasion with a special item.
Every day I want to try to make someone happy. You never know what’s going on in their lives.
And at St. Jude, this couldn’t be truer.