All images photographed prior to COVID-19.
Standing at the entrance of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a father whose little boy survived cancer offers a grateful smile.
Pete Upton, a truck driver for Averitt Express, stands alongside other Averitt associates in the photo from January, the statue of St. Jude Thaddeus peering over his shoulder. Just below Upton is an oversized check from the Averitt associate giving program, ending with a curious final digit of “1”.
That extra dollar signifies the company’s “Power of One” mantra, and it brought the most recent donation from the longest-running company giving program in St. Jude history to $1,000,001 – and more than $8 million from Averitt associates since 1990.
Upton, like 96 percent of Averitt associates, directs $1 per week from his paycheck to Averitt Cares for Kids, which primarily benefits St. Jude. When Upton first joined Averitt in 2013, after spending 15 years as a pro golf caddie for his wife on the LPGA Tour, he asked, “Can I give more than a dollar?”
Eight months into giving that $1 per paycheck driving for Averitt, Upton's wife, Stacy Prammanasudh, called with difficult news about their 3-year-old son, Ryp. Those odd bruises Stacy had noticed on Ryp? Doctors determined the cause was acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
ALL, as it is known, is the most common form of childhood cancer. Treatment protocols invented at St. Jude led to the first published cure for ALL, in 1972.
“I think God works in funny ways,” Upton said. “If Stacy had not decided to retire so we could be with Ryp more, would we have noticed it early? And then I go to work for Averitt – Stacy just said get a job with insurance – and I am making donations directly out of my check that I don’t even miss.
“And not even a year later, St. Jude is helping my family.”
Ryp received his treatment at a St. Jude affiliate clinic in Tulsa. Now 10, he is a healthy, active little boy, free of cancer. The emotion Averitt associates often experience visiting St. Jude resonated even more deeply during the January trip.
“I definitely had to go find a corner a couple times to cry,” Upton said. “It brought back a flood of memories.”
How Averitt embraces the St. Jude mission
It may not fit the stereotypical image, but teary-eyed truck drivers are common at many of Averitt’s new-associate orientations, which always incorporate the St. Jude-Averitt connection.
“I didn’t realize the impact until we watched a video of a St. Jude patient named Mason,” said Brittany Wright, an Averitt associate hired earlier this year. “I promise I was not the only one crying.”
Averitt often emphasizes its strong record of loyalty from associates in an industry that features high rates of driver attrition, and the connection to St. Jude is a key piece of that Power of One culture.
“You see the Averitt calendar with pictures drawn in honor of the hospital, and it really hits home,” said Chris Yohn, a driver from Georgia. “You feel like at Averitt, you are treated like family, from company drivers up to leadership.”
Averitt's leadership is optimistic that 2020's contribution to St. Jude will exceed $1,000,001.
“That dollar a week changes so many lives through Averitt Cares for Kids,” said Dusty Barrow, a member of the associate engagement team that helps oversee the giving program. “You see the power of one dollar, the power of one mission. It resonates in every single thing we do at Averitt.”
There has been great pride during the pandemic working for a company powered by essential workers, whose routines have been altered significantly, including wearing masks and keeping social distance during deliveries.
“Drivers in general are very determined, very kind, very dedicated and loyal people,” said Alice Crabtree, of Averitt's associate engagement leadership who is married to a former truck driver. “Our associates truly are essential. They have moved America.”
Averitt was much smaller 34 years ago when an associate-driven effort served as the genesis to Averitt Cares for Kids. When Averitt associates collected funds to surprise the company’s owner and CEO, Gary Sasser, with a new full-sized trailer, he seized the moment as a culture-building opportunity.
“Back in the day, we didn’t have as much equipment as we do now,” said Tony Brown, Averitt’s Nashville service center director. “But Gary had a vision when he saw that spirit of giving, he said he wanted associates to make it for charity, not for him. That’s how this started.”
Averitt associates initially steered funds to an assortment of charities, then began to narrow the focus to consider charities based on effectiveness and impact. More and more, associates were voting to direct their paycheck deductions to St. Jude.
“The overwhelming response from our team was for that $1 per week go to St. Jude,” said Gina Billings, Averitt’s marketing and communications director. “When deciding which organization to develop an ongoing relationship, St. Jude fit perfectly.”
Averitt’s VP of human resources, Elise Leeson, is in her 34th year at Averitt and serves as president of the board that oversees Averitt Cares for Kids. She recalls touring St. Jude in the early 1990s and seeing bulletin boards filled with photos showing former patients enjoying special moments – graduations, proms, weddings, sporting events.
“I would look at those pictures and think, ‘There are children, there are families, who won’t be able to send in photos,’” Leeson said. “It does stand out to me that the cure rate (overall childhood cancer survival rate) then was 60 percent and to see it today at more than 80 percent, and to know what we’ve done really does make a difference.”
In addition to helping St. Jude ensure families never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food, Averitt’s funds have helped refurbish inpatient units and sponsored the Averitt Express Leukemia and Lymphoma Clinic.
The company has continued to help grow the partnership by making contributions honoring associates for their exemplary efforts, on special occasions and events in their lives. Additionally, Averitt matches dollars for hours of community service associates give through their Team Up Community Challenge initiatives.
Legacy of helping families
For Brown, the Nashville service center director, knowing Averitt’s success deepens the partnership with St. Jude adds to his sense of purpose. He has visited St. Jude several times, and holds dear memories of a patient named Mary Jo, who attended several Averitt events before passing away in 2010 at age 15.
Brown said he remains driven by the words of Mary Jo’s father after her death, asking those who knew her to keep her memory alive.
“When I think of the kids at St. Jude, I just want to make sure they get their shot at life,” Brown said. “It’s unfair what they have to go through. That’s what makes me a fighter for St. Jude. Let’s provide the environment and the research and the treatment, so they have a chance.”
During Averitt’s visit to St. Jude in January, Pete Upton, the associate from Tulsa, was grateful to see the nurturing environment made possible, in part, by Averitt’s support.
“I know as a parent of a child with cancer, you are scared to death of what’s going on,” Upton said. “The vibrant colors, the art, the activities and seeing the kids and parents smiling and having fun. I think it would give you hope as a parent that your child can get through this.”
When the group later met with a St. Jude researcher, someone from Averitt asked when all childhood cancers might be cured.
“This gentleman said maybe if his son becomes a doctor, maybe his son would see that day,” Upton said. “So it’s remarkable to me, how positive and enthusiastic he was, and he’s thinking that far into the future. That’s how complex cancer is.”
As they unite with St. Jude, guided by that simple “Power of One” concept, Averitt associates remain determined to drive toward that day when no child dies of cancer.