Former teen volunteer Karen Coffey Pascal standing in front of a statue of St. Jude Thaddeus.

Then and now

A former teen volunteer revisits the place that set her on a career of giving back.

When Karen Coffey Pascal first came to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, it was as a 17-year-old volunteer — a “candy striper.”

That was 50 years ago and Karen, who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area, returned to St. Jude in the fall of 2017 for her first visit since she was named “Volunteen of the Year” by the Volunteer Service Bureau Advisory Board of Memphis in 1967.

It all boils down to the spirit in which you do your work. A person’s individual taste, and the way she goes about doing her work will determine how the work will be handled.
 A young Karen while being interviewed by a newspaper reporter in the summer of 1967

Wise words for a teenager, but Karen’s character had been shaped by the independence and initiative inherent in a nomadic childhood. She and her family moved around the country for her father’s job with Ford Motor Company, and she had already attended two different high schools before landing at St. Agnes Academy in Memphis, Tenn.

The St. Jude campus in the early years

The St. Jude campus in the early years

Karen was aware of Memphis and St. Jude before her arrival, her mother having recounted again and again the story of Danny Thomas and the shrine he built to St. Jude Thaddeus. When Karen decided she wanted to volunteer, there was no other place she wanted to be.

So much so, in fact, that four times a week she took a city bus 10 miles from her home to a stop downtown and walked the rest of the way to St. Jude. The hospital had been open only five years at the time and was a small facility, round in the center with five star points radiating outward.

Despite its size, the teenage Karen was awed.

 
 

Karen returning to the St. Jude campus 50 years later

I looked forward to coming here. I got to know people in the cafeteria, people in housekeeping. I got to know doctors and nurses. It was such a happy place; everyone was like family.
Karen Coffey Pascal, reflecting on her time volunteering at St. Jude

She didn’t work directly with patients but handled clerical tasks, such as searching scientific journals for articles that would help Dr. Oleg S. Selawry in her research.

While it might seem a mundane way to spend an afternoon, Karen thrived in the environment and was set on course for a career with meaning that she might not otherwise have had.

“I was doing something I liked to do,” she said. “Here I was, 16, and some people go through their life, and they don’t ever do anything they like to do.”

She earned a master’s degree in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She went on to work with children and young adults in a hospital setting and, later, with Durham (N.C.) City Schools.

“They had disabilities, cognitive and physical,” she said. “I loved that work; I really threw myself into helping them.”

When she and her husband moved to Washington for his job, Karen worked with disabled Vietnam-era veterans and, later, at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center.

Karen Coffey Pascal holding a photo of her as a teenager when she volunteered as a "Candy Striper" at St. Jude

Karen holding an article of her as a teenager when she volunteered as a "candy striper" at St. Jude

“I had come full circle,” she said, “starting out as a volunteer teenager at one outstanding research hospital and the Director of Education and Training as an adult at another. I have always felt my experience at St. Jude inspired my career interest.”

A copy of the 1967 Volunteen of the Year newspaper article was sent to Danny Thomas and, in his reply, he wrote, “I am proud of you for your unselfish work and someday, God willing, all of us shall be re-paid handsomely by the many lives our great institution shall save.”

Today, St. Jude has its own Volunteen program offering the experience of service and the opportunity to develop team building, as well as leadership skills and fostering self-awareness. 

There’s nothing better you could do that’s more fulfilling and more rewarding. It’s going to have a major impact on your life. You’re always going to look back and have good feelings about it.
Karen, speaking to young volunteers

From her mother, Karen learned that Danny made a promise to help people. And because of St. Jude, so did Karen. “It inspired me,” she said. “I thought, ‘I want to get out and do what I can.’ It wouldn’t be anything like (Danny building St. Jude), but it would be in my own way.”

Karen came across the article and letter, and her old candy striper uniform, while in the process of downsizing, following the deaths of her mother and husband last year. They took her back to her time as a volunteer and led her to see St. Jude again, and to make a donation in memory of her loved ones.

Though the hospital campus she returned to has grown, she sensed the same familial spirit in the hallways.

The St. Jude campus today

The St. Jude campus today

“I’m just so happy,” she said. “I can only imagine that the people who have helped it become this had that same motivation in their hearts as Danny Thomas did to help.”

Learn more about the St. Jude Volunteen program.

 

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