Like learning to walk, ‘I just always knew about St. Jude

Through workplace, family and fraternity, David McKinney has been a lifelong supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Now, he’s encouraging his 6-year-old son to join the mission.

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David McKinney, Vice President of Human Resources and Public Affairs, Customer Satisfaction for AutoZone

When David McKinney stops to think about it, he can’t remember a time when he didn’t know about St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The campus was some 15 minutes from his childhood neighborhood in South Memphis. As a child, he remembers seeing St. Jude advertisements in grocery stores and malls. He recalls participating in lemonade stands and collecting cans and toys for drives that benefited kids and families at St. Jude. He remembers meeting new families in church and school who moved to Memphis to seek care and treatment at St. Jude.

“It’s like asking me when did you learn to walk? I just always did. I just always knew about St. Jude,” McKinney said.

What he knew about St. Jude, even as a child, McKinney said, is that it was a place and a cause that brought people together. He watched his church congregation rally to support a St. Jude family whose child was in treatment. He joined the effort, “because even as a kid you realize that if a family was at St. Jude, it was an all-hands-on-deck-kind of experience,” he said.

McKinney grew up realizing that this was a mission that galvanizes: turning strangers into families and communities into powerful philanthropic engines. And as he grew older and studied at the University of Memphis and worked for the local chamber of commerce, McKinney also learned about how the doctors and researchers at St. Jude marshalled their collective knowledge and resources toward a singular goal to save more kids with cancer and other catastrophic diseases.

All along the way, from childhood into young adulthood and into his professional years, McKinney found ways to support the work St. Jude was doing. He ran races and donated spare change at cashier registers. Nowadays, as a successful executive at AutoZone, he leverages every part of his life to give to St. Jude: his workplace, his church, his fraternity, his family. AutoZone, a St. Jude partner since 2006, has raised more than $57 million for the research hospital through various fundraising efforts.

David McKinney, Vice President of Human Resources and Public Affairs, Customer Satisfaction for AutoZone

“What really inspires me and motivates me about St. Jude is the work to find a solution to a terrible diagnosis for a vulnerable child, to find a solution for something that seems impossible and not put the financial burden on families going through it,” said McKinney. “But I think the other piece that is really special is the sharing of resources, sharing of these solutions globally.”

St. Jude is the kind of place “that speaks to who we all are as people and what we want to accomplish for humankind,” McKinney said.

It’s why he’s brought his family into the fold with his support of St. Jude.

He recently established a charitable foundation with his wife, Dr. Shanea McKinney, and the couple hopes to give grants and gifts to St. Jude through that organization.

He’s also involved his 6-year-old son, Gethers, in the work to support St. Jude.

“Part of me hopes that Gethers has the same story as me, where if he's ever asked, ‘When did you learn about St Jude, he'll say, ‘I always knew about it. I always knew about what the mission was. I always knew how important it was. I knew the impact from day one,’” McKinney said.

To support the breadth and scope of the work St. Jude is doing to improve survival rates for childhood cancers and catastrophic diseases not just here in the U.S. but around the world, will take multigenerational philanthropy, McKinney said, which is why he’s instilling the value of giving back so early in his son’s life.

“I think in our core we live to impact others outside of ourselves,” McKinney said. “And I think that philanthropy provides one of the most direct ways for a person to do just that, to go beyond themselves and to truly help others.”

McKinney is interested in cementing a living legacy, he said. He wants to be remembered for how much he does to improve and elevate a broader world outside of himself and his family. He also wants to actively build a community where his son feels he already has a place to give.

“I want Gethers to grow up knowing about this place and what it takes to support it,” McKinney said.

David McKinney, Vice President of Human Resources and Public Affairs, Customer Satisfaction for AutoZone

“The work to come up with the best ideas to fight the toughest problems we face has to be done together,” McKinney said, “and St. Jude is an example of that.”

The sharing of knowledge and resources with institutions around the world also allows outcomes to improve, McKinney said, so hopefully one day children will have the same chance at life no matter where they live. He hopes that it will allow for health equity, another important value to him as he works to raise funds and awareness for St. Jude, he said.

McKinney said he is particularly moved by the work he learned St. Jude was doing to improve the treatment and understanding of sickle cell disease, the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States that disproportionately affects African Americans; roughly one out of 365 African American babies are born in the U.S. with it.

St. Jude has been a leader in improving standards of care for people with sickle cell disease since its founding in 1962. In fact, the first grant the research hospital in Memphis ever received was for the study of sickle cell disease, and today, St. Jude has one of the largest sickle cell disease programs in the country, serving about 900 patients a year.

Dr. Rudolph Jackson, one of the first Black doctors at St. Jude, was a pioneering researcher and doctor in the treatment of sickle cell, childhood cancer, solid tumors and other life-threatening diseases. He joined St. Jude at a tumultuous time in the segregated South in 1968. While he was at St. Jude, Dr. Jackson built the sickle cell program in Memphis to such a stature that in the early 1970s that the National Institute of Health hired him to head the federal government’s efforts to fight the disease.

His work laid the foundation for St. Jude to be part of major advances in sickle cell disease treatment over the last 60 years, and doctors and researchers continue his legacy by exploring new cutting-edge potentially curative therapies for the disease.

“I was really fired up about the work done by Dr. Jackson. It really resonated with me,” said McKinney, who along with his wife Shanea made a $25,000 commitment toward a campaign in Dr. Jackson’s honor that supports research on the St. Jude campus. “My wife is a pharmacist. And, in 2021 she was appointed to the Tennessee Board of Pharmacy and was the first person of color to do it. So, this kind of micro history is still being made. And in part it's thanks to places like St. Jude that believed in diversity, equity and inclusion long before it was a catch phrase or the popular thing to do.”

As the Vice President of Human Resources and Public Affairs, Customer Satisfaction for AutoZone, McKinney said he’s also excited to help lead the corporate giving efforts for such a large company because it can have an impact and influence on so many lives.

McKinney said AutoZone and St. Jude have a natural partnership that he feels are rooted in shared values and similar forward-looking visions. He said AutoZone has a corporate philosophy that centers around taking care of you. That “you” can be customers, employees, but also communities.

“Giving back in that way ensures a strong culture,” McKinney said. “And success for a company like AutoZone means having that strong culture, having the work we do go beyond the products we sell. The real work is about how you care about people, care about others.”

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