It’s time for the 26th annual feast and football watch party that’s become Arkansas’ largest fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Or, put another way, Fred and Susan Cathcart’s little girl Donna would be 35 years old now.
“To me, she’s frozen in time,” Fred says. “That’s what I think of. But then I wonder, what would she be like today?”
A few moments later, he answers his own question: “She’d be right in the middle of it.”
Of everything, he means. Because as Donna’s family describes her and seemingly every photo of the smiling girl suggests, she’d be loving life. And she’d surely love the St. Jude S’travaganza, held every year in Jonesboro, Ark. on the biggest Sunday in professional football, to honor the girl’s memory and raise funds and awareness for the hospital where she was treated for a rare, inoperable brain stem tumor in 1993.
The all-volunteer S’travaganza has raised nearly $5.2 million over 25 years — including $522,000 just last year — as one family’s daughter, and sister, has become a symbol for a city’s commitment to a hospital 70 miles down the road.
Come Sunday afternoon, some 1,400 people are expected to gather in a former Sears building to eat ribs, shrimp, chicken and crawfish, watch the big game on 56 big-screen TVs, and make silent bids on about 700 donated items including a duck-hunting trip, Caribbean resort vacations and — for the many farmers in attendance — 100 acres of fungicide application. Tickets are $150, or $250 for VIP status.
“Sometimes people see each other one time a year, and it’s there,” says Janice Kroeter, a volunteer for about 25 years whose daughter was friends with Donna. “It’s a good time. You get to do a lot of visiting. And you feel good, supporting the hospital.”
Natalie Cathcart, Donna’s older sister by 15 months, is proud that a deeply personal family event has grown into “a Jonesboro tradition, something that’s become bigger and bigger every year.”
Big sis, of course, wouldn’t miss it.
She’s an occupational therapist at a Memphis-area hospital, and says, “I always tell people at work that I’ll work Christmas. I’ll work New Year’s Day. I’ll work Thanksgiving.”
But when it comes to the day of the S’travaganza, “I have to be off.”
Ask Susan what her daughter was like and she says, “Let me show you a picture. Got a minute?”
She leads you to a series of photos on a wall in their Jonesboro home. It’s a wonder they’re not all blurry — Donna not being the type to sit still, apparently. She was a gymnast. She loved the outdoors. Loved to swim. Loved the lake.
“Super active,” Fred says. “Wanted to do and try things that she was way too young to do.”
“Just that second child who’s always into things,” Natalie says.
“Never sick,” Susan says, “until a couple of weeks before she was diagnosed.”
It began with headaches. Then she became nauseated. After multiple trips to the pediatrician, she was in the hospital for dehydration, and tests to rule things out. Fred remembers stopping by the hospital on his lunch break from work, and a knock on the door.
There were only three pediatricians in Jonesboro at that time, Fred says. They were in a practice together. And when Fred opened the door, “They were all three standing there. They basically said, ‘We found this mass in her head.’”
Within days — on March 24, 1993, a date the family will never forget — Donna was at St. Jude. The diagnosis: DIPG, a rare, and inoperable, tumor of the brain stem.
So Fred did what a father might be expected to do, in the face of such grim news. He tried for better news elsewhere, calling medical facilities all around the country.
“When I finally got through to someone to talk to,” he says, “everyone would say, ‘Sir, there’s a small hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s where you need to be.’ Every one of them.”
At St. Jude, Donna received chemotherapy and 60 radiation therapy treatments. Steroids doubled her weight. One drug shrank the tumor, but only for a while, and eventually her health deteriorated. She suffered a seizure in early November and died late that month.
Even so, the Cathcarts remember St. Jude as a place of hope and smiling children — and how it planted the seed for Natalie’s career in occupational therapy. They talk about friends they made there. They talk about the housekeeper who cried, the day they left St. Jude for home. They talk about the extra months they had with their daughter, because of St. Jude.
And they talked about how they were moved — literally so — to do something for the hospital.
Donna died three days after Thanksgiving. By Christmas, the Cathcarts were brainstorming ideas with friends.
On Jan. 30, 1994 — just two months after their daughter’s death, 11 days past what would have been her 10th birthday — the still-grieving parents hosted the first S’travaganza.
They remember having shrimp, and feeding about 200 people. There were a few silent-auction items and the big game showing on three or four TVs. They raised $14,300 for St. Jude. And over time, one family’s show of support for St. Jude became a community’s.
“I came across a photo as I was looking this past week, from the year 2000, from our newspaper,” Kroeter says. “And it had some of us in it — course, we were much younger. But we sent a check for $88,000. And at that time, we thought, Wow. That is unbelievable.
“And here now we net over half a million.”
Kroeter marvels at how her friends Susan and Fred channeled their grief so that other people’s daughters and sons might survive. “Had it been me,” she says, “being involved with St. Jude would have been too sad. But they, on the other hand, looked at it as a place that gave them hope, and wanted to give back.
“It was hard not to tag along to their enthusiasm.”
In 2018, the St. Jude S’travaganza received the Community Alliance Award at the St. Jude Volunteer Awards dinner. It was 25th anniversary recognition for what truly is a community effort, with an event committee of 30 people, a volunteer base that swells to 250 on the big day, and hundreds of area companies donating goods and services that keep expenses to less than 5 percent of the total take.
“It was just the way that we thought we could give back, to honor Donna,” Susan says. “A way to help other children. It was also a way to help us in our grief. I could say we did it for a selfish reason, too. To help us. And it still does.”
End of an era?
The 26th St. Jude S’travaganza could be the last. The Cathcarts are stepping down from their leadership roles, saying “it’s time.” Age is a factor, as is the challenge of finding a large enough venue in Jonesboro.
The local newspaper, The Jonesboro Sun, wrote an editorial, saying it is “impossible to measure the impact the S’travaganza has had on St. Jude and Jonesboro,” and calling on others to step up:
“Surely someone is willing to take on this most admirable event that brings such joy to Jonesboro area residents and helps fill the coffers of a hospital that literally saves children from the scourge of cancer.”
No matter, Fred and Susan say they’ll keep raising money and awareness for St. Jude. “We’ll keep doing something,” Fred says, “without having to put the party together.”
And they’ll continue to spread the word in informal, everyday ways — like recently in St. Louis when a woman noticed Susan’s St. Jude tote bag and said, “You really don’t believe that stuff you see on TV, do you?”
“I said, ‘Ma’am, let’s have a talk,’ ” says Susan, who was only too happy to educate the woman about a hospital where families never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food, a hospital that gave them hope — and a few more months with their daughter.
So the S’travaganza may end. But Fred and Susan Cathcart? “They will continue to support the hospital as long as they have a breath in their body,” Kroeter says.
But first, there’s a party to throw. There are ribs and crawfish to eat, friends to out-bid on that resort getaway to Antigua. There’s a big game to watch — and no matter the outcome.
We already know who wins at the St. Jude S’travaganza.