Southwest Virginia: Sweethearts for St. Jude

Cade Watson’s family and his supporters in places like Chilhowie and Damascus raised more than $104,000 last year. How does this area of the Appalachians do so much?

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  •  6 min

Farmland just outside of downtown Chilhowie, Va.

Approaching Damascus, Virginia, you can be forgiven for wanting to get a little lost.

You notice tumble-down barns next to streams ribboning through the foothills, and then all of a sudden you’ve taken a hairpin turn and are climbing, climbing — up a mountain, you suppose. If you didn’t have to concentrate so hard on driving, you’d have time to process the waterfalls, the galloping horses, the farms that look like snapshots of rural life 100 years ago.

A scenic stop on the Appalachian Trail, Damascus is home to a tourist economy of sorts, with Baptist churches next to shops for cycling and hiking gear; overlooks for RVs to plug in; and places to stay named after wildlife-with-personality, such as the Dancing Bear Inn and the Lazy Fox Inn.

But there are worries here, too. About the mining economy on the skids, and the problems that come with anxious folks out of work. Some of the houses are leaning. There are clear, visible problems with foundations.

“It’s been tough. It’s tough here. It’s a terrible thing to see, and our community hurts from this,” says Jim Watson, a trucker.

As much as the community may hurt, it also knows how to heal. Which is why its residents — and those of neighboring towns such as Chilhowie, Glade Springs and Abingdon — are always coming together in support of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

A sign in Damascus, Va., lets people know about the Sweetheart Banquet.

A sign in Damascus, Va., advertises a fundraising event for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.  The community comes together to support St. Jude, which has treated children from the cluster of towns in Southwest Virginia. 

A second home

Jim Watson first learned about St. Jude years ago, when a family from church had a child diagnosed with cancer. Jim helped them get to St. Jude. The mother and child flew, while Jim and the dad drove two cars to the hospital so the family would have its own transportation. More than 1,000 miles to St. Jude and back, but that’s what you do for your neighbor.

But what Jim didn’t expect was that one day he’d be the neighbor on the receiving end of that sentiment.

In summer 2010, his son Cade’s vision grew cloudy.

“My eyes started looking funny,” says Cade. “I could see white around everything.”

Soon Cade was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor, a brain cancer so rare and aggressive the local hospital talked immediately about hospice.

“They told us to take Cade home and make memories with him, because he had just two or three months left to live,” says his mom, Jolene. “He was given only a 10-percent chance of survival.”

St. Jude patient Cade, 18, helps his mom, Jolene, prepare for the Sweetheart Banquet while in their home.

Cade sits with his mom, Jolene, at the kitchen table in the family's log cabin.  When Cade was diagnosed with brain cancer, his family turned to St. Jude for help. 

Cade’s parents hoped to prolong his life.

“I asked the pathologist, ‘If this was your child, where would you take him?’” says Jolene. “And he said, ‘Well, St. Jude is the teacher, and the other two places doing this protocol are the students, so I would take him to the teacher.’ ”

At St. Jude, Cade underwent surgery to remove a second tumor, 31 radiation therapy treatments to his brain and spine and four rounds of chemotherapy.

The family found a second home at St. Jude.

“Cade’s doctors, his nurses, the radiation techs — whenever we see any of these people in the hallway, they hug Cade, they speak to him, they talk to us,” says Jolene. “The people make it so wonderful at St. Jude.”

The no-bill policy at St. Jude kept the family from going under, from losing the log cabin they called home. “We had worked for years and years to pay for our home,” Jolene says. “We would have given up anything for our son, but it was such a relief to know we didn’t have to.”

Cade’s family threw its first St. Jude fundraiser as Team Cade in 2011, the year he completed treatment, and felt lucky to have raised more than $2,000.

Nearly nine years after Cade’s diagnosis and the 10-percent chance, Jolene and Jim still have their boy.

St. Jude patient Cade, 18, chats with guests during the Sweetheart Banquet benefiting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Cade, now finished with cancer treatment, talks with members of his community. Supporters from the area rallied around Cade and his parents, offering prayers, comfort and practical help as the family made preparations to go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, eight hours away in Memphis, Tenn.

A labor of love

It’s two hours before the Sweetheart Banquet at the Damascus Volunteer Rescue Squad, and everyone has a job. The men inflate red and white balloons. Jolene fills paper trays with sweetener packets.

Cade and his girlfriend of two years, Katelyn, don winter jackets to get ice, happy to have an errand alone together.

“He’s really funny,” she says of Cade. “He’s very loving. He gets along really well with my family, too. They love him to death.”

Cade and his girlfriend go to get ice for the Sweetheart Banquet.

Cade and his girlfriend Katelyn make an ice run to prepare for the Sweetheart Banquet, one of Team Cade's major fundraisers for St. Jude

Trish Jenkins of Jonesborough, Tennessee, does the table settings. Jenkins met the family through the Gold Wing Road Riders Association (GWRRA) motorcycle group a few years ago, and something clicked. “I just love that boy,” she says of Cade, “and his mom and dad, too.”

She’s become the kind of volunteer who shows up early, stays late and hosts her own fundraising events for Team Cade, such as garage sales in Jonesborough and Kingsport, Tennessee.

The Sweetheart Banquet is one of several fundraisers Team Cade puts on throughout the year in support of St. Jude. They hold golf tournaments in summer, sell pumpkin rolls in October, throw bluegrass barbeque events in spring, something nearly every weekend, and generally try to build up and empower their supporters to spin off their own fundraisers for St. Jude.

They make it personal.

“You’ve got to lift people up,” says Jolene.

Each September, Cade’s family and the other members of Team Cade and the Iron Mountain Riders, along with nearly 100 motorcycle riders from the GWRRA, set out from Bristol, Virginia, to begin a two-day trek to St. Jude to deliver the funds raised from the previous year. Last year alone, Team Cade and the Iron Mountain Riders donated $104,522 to St. Jude.

Supporters of Team Cade approach the campus of St. Jude.

Supporters of Team Cade approach the campus of St. Jude.   The riders make a two-day trek to deliver funds raised from the previous year. 

“St. Jude is like our second full-time job,” jokes Jolene, who works in corrections.

“This is our God-driven mission,” says Jim.

As they talk, students from the local culinary school pile into the kitchen. Jolene steps away to get them started on catering.

And the good work continues.

A heart for children and families

Former St. Jude patient Miranda and her mom

Cade isn't the only St. Jude patient in the town of Chilhowie.  Miranda, shown here with her mom, Lisa, was treated at the hospital in 2014 and continues to return for checkups. "This isn’t just about Cade. There are lots of St. Jude kids in this community, and we work together to make sure the families have everything they need," said Jim.

A person could drive through Damascus in five minutes, but to know its heart, they’d do well to spend two hours on the Saturday before Valentine’s Day at the St. Jude Sweetheart Banquet.

The people of the town show up, just like they said they would. Just like they always do when it matters.

Cade, a product of this place, talks about how he ­­learned to whittle by practicing for hours on his front porch and about how when he wants to fish, he goes right across the street from his house and down the hill to the South Fork Holston River, which is rich with trout.

Jim points out who’s here. “Over there’s where you have the group from Macedonia Baptist Church, and at this table, you have my coworkers, the people I’ve worked with for years. Jolene’s work group is here, and over here you have the C Chapter of the Tennessee Gold Wing Road Riders Association. Cheyenne and her parents are St. Jude patients over there, and so is Miranda and her family. This isn’t just about Cade. There are lots of St. Jude kids in this community, and we work together to make sure the families have everything they need. We also work together to do the fundraising to support the research because that’s what’s most important: that the research continue.”

He points out Ronnie Wilson, the man in the St. Jude ball cap, who convinced Jim, “We can do it,” when Cade set a $100,000 fundraising goal last year.

With him is Larry Combs, the man who quietly wrote a check for $3,000 when he knew it would help put them over.

Ronnie Wilson and Larry Combs

Ronnie Wilson and Larry Combs are among the supporters who have helped Team Cade reach its fundraising goal, providing the encouragement and support for St. Jude.

Each person has a story.

Generations of local people have come together in this meeting hall. They’ll eat herb-roasted chicken, roast beef and sides, and support a good cause. They’ll tap their feet to the band, Mercy River.

They are here because they care.

“It makes me emotional to talk about St. Jude,” says event volunteer Roy Rethford. “I love everything they do. I love the kids and the families. The families are the main things.” His wife passed away not long ago, and she used to send in the mailers to St. Jude. He’s carrying on her legacy because he misses her. It’s a way to heal his heart.

These are the good people of Bristol and Kingsport, of Jonesboro and Boone, of Glade Springs and Chilhowie, of Damascus and Abingdon. They come from the small towns of America, and they give what they can to St. Jude.

“Cade is here today because of you,” Jim tells them.

And now it is time to break bread.

The downtown area of Chilhowie is seen from a distance
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