Playful voices of children echo in the background as Barbara and Jack Pavlat guide a visitor through the Ronald McDonald House in Memphis, a place where the couple’s influence is evident all the way down to the slim strips of plastic protecting wall corners.
“All these plastic corner pieces — I put all those up,” said Jack, referring to one of his first projects at the facility that provides free lodging for patients and families at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The Pavlats live in Virginia Beach, Virginia, but it’s fair to say their home is just about any place connected to St. Jude. Places like the Ronald McDonald house. Year after year, they make the 14-and-a-half-hour drive to Memphis to manage the facility during the Christmas holidays, giving staff time to spend with their own families.
Then there are the events the Pavlats support. They have worked on St. Jude Dream Home® giveaway campaigns from Virginia to Idaho and have often spoken to donor groups. They have served on the St. Jude Family Advisory Council and have helped coordinate benefit events ranging from golf tournaments to motorcycle rallies to regattas. They have raised nearly $100,000 through a team in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon.
So numerous are their support activities, in fact, that the Pavlats have trouble recalling them all.
“My wife and I were laughing about that this morning,” Jack said. “We were trying to think of something we haven’t done for St. Jude.”
It all began with a burning need to keep busy.
“Working here (at the Ronald McDonald house) helped me keep my sanity while we were going through a hard time,” Jack recalled.
He’s referring to the long, wrenching period when his and Barbara’s only child, Suzanne, or Suzy, as they sometimes called her, was undergoing treatment for a type of cancer known as neuroblastoma. She had been diagnosed at age 3 during the same week in 1993 that Jack underwent surgery for colon cancer and Barbara learned she had breast cancer.
Mom and dad were cured of their cancers, but Suzanne was still battling hers in December 1999 when the family first stayed at the Ronald McDonald house during her treatment at St. Jude. The Pavlats later moved to Target House, which accommodates patient families for long-term stays at St. Jude.
At each place, the couple took turns staying with Suzanne. While Barbara watched her during the day, Jack volunteered to perform chores and do odd jobs around the Ronald McDonald house, which at the time was undergoing expansion and renovation. “You can sit around in your room just watching your child as they’re sick,” he said, “or you can get out and do something.”
“When Suzanne had good days,” Barbara added, “we would take her out to town to do something, thinking we were making memories for her. But really they were for us.”
Suzanne passed away in 2001 at age 11. But in the nearly two decades since, the Pavlats’ work on behalf of St. Jude hasn’t faltered. If anything, it’s intensified.
That may seem surprising, since they’re both 71 and Barbara is mostly confined to a wheelchair as a result of a long-ago surgery.
The Pavlats trace their persistence, in part, to a promise made to their daughter.
“We were sitting at our kitchen table at Target House,” Jack recalled. “She said, ‘Daddy, if I die, will people remember me?’ I said, ‘Well, that’ll be my job, won’t it?’ And she never asked me about death again.”
Jack said he feels his daughter’s presence every time he speaks to groups about St. Jude. “I know Suzy’s there behind me, helping me.”
So the couple will tell you that, yes, they’re keeping the promise to their daughter. But there’s a more urgent motivation for their St. Jude work.
“We want to see a cure,” Jack said. “I don’t want to see other parents go through what my wife and I have gone through.”
He knows that St. Jude needs resources to find cures. “It takes time, it takes doctors, it takes money,” Jack said. “Well, time and doctors they’ve got. They need the money, so I’m willing to work to raise money so that they find a cure, they make it so other parents don’t lose their children.”
The Pavlats also admire St. Jude’s guiding philosophy. “I like the idea that they provide the best medical care, and it’s not dictated by an insurance company what can and can’t happen. It’s dictated by the doctor,” Jack said.
The couple’s unflagging devotion has earned them honors from ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, and the Ronald McDonald house, where they were the first parents to win the volunteer of the year award.
But they will tell you the work they do for St. Jude is anything but burdensome. At the Ronald McDonald house, for instance, the holidays seem festive for the Pavlats even though they’re working.
“Our house is empty. This house is full,” said Jack, while sitting with Barbara in the lobby. “We could sit in an empty house, or we could be in a full house. This house is full of children and things to do.”
To be sure, they stay busy. Jack handles chores that include fixing clogged sinks and toilets, while Barbara picks up misplaced items and helps her husband “put out fires,” she said. The couple also spend time answering questions and helping guests who have locked themselves out of their rooms.
Occasionally, the Pavlats have to shift into crisis-management mode, such as the time an overflowing washing machine caused a flood that collapsed the ceiling over the director’s office. Another year, they had to deal with a six-hour power outage.
A plaque on the door to the room across the hall from theirs offers a poignant reminder of why the the Pavlats started working at the house.
It pays homage to a former St. Jude patient who stayed there. A bright-eyed girl named Suzy.