Hoosier Hero to celebrate $500,000 fundraising milestone at St. Jude Rock ‘n’ Roll Nashville

Sue Ellen Henderson says there are “no magic tricks” to raising money for St. Jude, just a lot of love.

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  •  6 min

Sue Ellen Henderson, Evansville, Indiana

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Sue Ellen Henderson of Evansville, Indiana, opened her email one day in 2011 and saw something on the computer screen that changed her life. 

It was a note from her friend Bob Fodstad, who had just run in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon® Weekend. She had donated to his fundraising event. 

In his thank you letter to her, Fodstad described how it felt to run through the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, past the coral-colored buildings, past two little girls in wheelchairs who were clearly going through treatment. They held up signs that said, “You’re my hero.”

Fodstad wrote about how he waved, blew them kisses and continued, but shortly after passing them, he had to stop running because he was so choked up that he couldn’t breathe. “Never in my life, before that or since, have I had a feeling like that,” wrote Fodstad.

The power of that mental image shook Henderson. She began to cry, thinking about those two little girls. She cries even now as she remembers it.

Before Fodstad had asked for a donation, Henderson hadn’t even realized St. Jude sponsored a marathon. But now that she did, she knew she needed to be part of it.

Sue Ellen Henderson, Evansville, Indiana

Twelve years later, her support for St. Jude through fitness events as a St. Jude Hero has become “my purpose in life.” 

When she crosses the finish line at the St. Jude Rock ‘n’ Roll Nashville event this year, she will have surpassed $500,000 in total funds raised for St. Jude

The 60-year-old says she’s just getting started.

“He was a great kid”

To really understand why Henderson cried that day, a person would need to imagine a young boy running around at a family event, having the best time. 

Her cousin, Ara Hertel, had the sweetest little child named Brock, who had lit up their lives.

“He was a great kid. He was a jokester, you know?” said Henderson.

St. Jude patient Brock

But Brock got very sick. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and his family took him to St. Jude for care. 

He passed away in 2001 when he was 10 years old.

Hertel channeled the loss of her son into fundraising for St. Jude, putting on activities in their local Indiana community. She would tick off facts about St. Jude and share her feelings of warmth and love for a place that, in the end, hadn’t been able to save Brock.

That astounded Henderson.

“That said a lot to me. You know, when you don’t have a positive outcome, and you’re still a champion for St. Jude, that says a lot,” said Henderson. “That was really amazing to me.

“And so, when I saw that email from Bob, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll have to run for St. Jude and honor Brock that way. And try to do something.’”

“They’re always there” 

A couple of years ago, Henderson was running the St. Jude Rock ‘n’ Roll Nashville event on such a hot day, it overwhelmed her.

“I got to about mile 11, and I thought, ‘I’m packing it in. I’m done. I can’t go on anymore.’” 

Henderson’s involvement with St. Jude fitness events had begun at a point in her life — her late 40s — when she wanted to make a change in her overall fitness and stamina.

Concerned about her long-term health, Henderson had begun running.

She says she’s not good at it; she’s not a natural. She refuses to even call it running, preferring the term “joggling” to describe what she considers to be her slow stride. 

St. Jude hero Sue Ellen Henderson

But she was dedicated and soon began seeking destination running events with friends. She lost 50 pounds. 

“Hey, my mom’s 93. My dad was 93 when he passed away,” said Henderson. “So, I think I got some pretty good genes. I gotta take care of this body, because it’s probably going to be around for a while.”

Since then, she’s run half marathons, 10Ks and triathlons. She’s a member of the St. Jude Walk/Run committee in Evansville, and a national St. Jude Heroes Ambassador, providing guidance and morale boosts to other St. Jude Heroes who fundraise for St. Jude through fitness events.

On the hard days, like that sweltering day in Nashville, she thinks about Brock — and all the children who never chose the path of cancer but who’ve had to walk it just the same. 

They give her an edge during those times her body threatens to fail her. 

“I thought, ‘I’m just going to dig deep and think about all these St. Jude kids I’ve met over the years. They don’t give up, so I’m not going to give up.’ I went ahead and finished. 

“So, they’re always there, whatever I do.”

“No magic tricks”

Manda Traver of Mississippi had decided to run her first St. Jude Rock ‘n’ Roll Nashville event as a St. Jude Hero in 2014 and quickly realized she had a natural gift for fundraising. 

But there was a woman on the fundraising leaderboard who, week after week, always stayed at the top of the pack.

“Who is this woman?” she wondered and began to feel almost a rivalry. It spurred her to do more and get more creative about raising funds. 

“I just felt that this woman, Sue Ellen Henderson, was the gold standard for giving, and I wanted to know how she did it.”

St. Jude hero Sue Ellen Henderson

They formed an instant bond when they met at the event, and today they serve together as St. Jude Hero Ambassadors.  So how has Henderson, a woman from “just a blue-collar, hardworking town” who says she has “no magic tricks” to help her raise money, managed to become one of the most successful individual fundraisers for St. Jude?

The first year Henderson raised funds, she challenged herself daily to think of three new people she hadn’t asked for donations and ask them to give.

“I just think it’s wonderful what she does, you know, to help other families out,” said Diane Folz, who met Henderson through work and has donated to her fundraisers for several years. “I keep telling her she’s an angel.”

Henderson and her supporters put on car shows, sell barbeque lunches and hold special Bike Night events for motorcycle enthusiasts. She’s like an encourager-in-chief for any great fundraising ideas for St. Jude that come her way, and she wants everyone to feel included.

“She doesn’t have big donors who write her big, fat checks,” said Traver. “She has average, everyday people who want to help, who give her little bits every time they get paid. They say, ‘I can’t give you $1,000, but I can give you $25 a month.’ She counts on that. She gives the little guy a way to be part of something bigger.”

Henderson’s fundraising — and her success at it — feels like a natural result of the care she shows to everyone she encounters.

Last year when the nation experienced a baby formula shortage, and Traver couldn’t find her son’s formula anywhere in her small Mississippi town, Henderson drove to nine different stores in Evansville — picking up one or two cans of formula at each place, so as not to clear any store out — to buy Traver the formula she needed and have it shipped to her. 

“Everything she does for St. Jude, she also does for people in her life,” said Traver. “She feels strongly about showing love to everybody. Any need that she sees that needs to be met, if she has a resource that’s available to her, whether it’s her own finances or a group of people to help meet the need, it’s just in her nature to do it. It’s like a second instinct to her. Some people run into burning buildings. Some people do everything else, and that’s Sue Ellen.”

“That’s my mission”

Bob Fodstad said he’s “humbled” by what he started 12 years ago when he sent that email to Henderson, igniting her fundraising efforts. He said he’s not a gifted writer and theorizes it must have been divine intervention when he wrote that email, and so much good came from it. 

“I can’t run any longer and can't even walk more than a 5K,” said Fodstad, but he thinks about those two little girls in their wheelchairs — he’ll never forget them — and does whatever he can for St. Jude.

He gives monthly to St. Jude as a Partner in Hope, and whenever Henderson asks for a donation to one of her fundraisers, he always says yes.

Henderson is celebrating her $500,000 St. Jude Hero fundraising milestone, but it’s not an ending. 

“All I can say is, ‘That’s the first half.’ I got another half in me, I think, before I quit,” said Sue Ellen. “So, I’d like to get to a million, but we’ll see. That’s my mission.”

Donate to Sue Ellen Henderson's St. Jude fundraiser, here.

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