This family has supported St. Jude for generations. They never dreamed they were paying it forward.

James is receiving cancer treatment at St. Jude for the second time.

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  •  4 min

James, now 3 years old, was first diagnosed in 2021 at 3 months old with neuroblastoma, a cancer arising from nerve cells.

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It would have taken about five days to cross the Atlantic Ocean then. Aboard the ship was a little boy known as Jack, born in Zahle, Lebanon in 1907 and bound for his new home, the United States. He would settle in Tennessee, start a business, raise a family, and remain as proud of his Lebanese roots as he was in love with his new country. 

In the spirit of giving back to his new nation, he would seek to do something for others: When he learned his famous fellow Lebanese-American, Danny Thomas, was raising money to build a hospital for catastrophically ill children, Jack got involved.

Jack P. Wehby became president of the Nashville chapter of American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital®. This hospital would be unlike any other. It would be guided by the belief that no child should die in the dawn of life. It would tackle diseases deemed incurable, such as childhood leukemia, and it would accept patients regardless of their race, religion or a family’s ability to pay. 

Four generations later, Jack’s great-great-grandson James would receive treatment there, not once but twice.

James continues to receive treatment at St. Jude.

But Jack and James aren’t single points of contact that root this family to St. Jude. In fact, there is a web of connection to St. Jude across the generations, a familial culture of caring in which each generation was paying it forward, without knowing they were.

Close to Home

“My great-papa would be so proud of James because he’s such a fighter,” said Amy, Jack’s great-granddaughter and James’ mom.

“I call him Mr. Mischievous,” said James’ dad, Rob. “He just loves to get into everything. He loves slides. He loves running outside. He loves singing and dancing. His dancing is great because he just dances like nobody's watching.”

James, now 3 years old, was first diagnosed in 2021 at 3 months old with neuroblastoma, a cancer arising from nerve cells. 

James was referred to St. Jude immediately. 

James continues to receive treatment at St. Jude.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Rob. “You feel powerless. You’re scared, you’re worried. It’s just a whole lot to take in.”

James underwent months of chemotherapy at St. Jude. Amy has photos of him smiling in his hospital crib, playful and happy despite the illness, despite the treatment. James was able to complete treatment and go home before his 1st birthday. Amy and Rob took the kids to the beach, and soon learned James, their youngest, was going to be a big brother himself. It was a year of “normal family stuff,” said Rob.

Then, at one of James’ regular checkups at St. Jude, scans showed his cancer was back.

Amy and Rob knew relapse was possible, but it still took them off-guard. Now they needed St. Jude for a second time.

Full Circle

When James’ family returned for treatment, they were again housed free of charge, like all St. Jude families — this time in an apartment at Target House.

It was their first time there as a St. Jude family, and yet it was familiar, because before they were even dating, Rob and Amy both volunteered at Target House. 

“Amy, of course, has her own story with her family history,” said Rob. “My family has always been huge supporters. Just seeing my mom and dad always donating to St. Jude and being part of that made me want to be part of something like that.” Amy and Rob were in college then, and volunteering was a reminder that there were more pressing things in life than exams. It felt good to reach outward with a helping hand.

James continues to receive treatment at St. Jude.

Not long ago, Rob’s social media archive offered up a 2010 photo of him and Amy at one of their volunteer events at Target House. It was a strange and unexpected feeling of coming full circle. This time instead of serving, they were being served. Rob said, “It's completely different being on the other side.”

Rob’s support of St. Jude was sort of an obvious choice because his parents had modeled it. “Who wouldn't want to be part of something bigger to give families and children hope?” he asked.

Now, he knows just how much that really means.

Looking at Legacy

“If I were to die tomorrow, I now know why I was born.” – Danny Thomas

When Amy thinks of her great-grandfather Jack’s life, and how his actions continue to touch her family now, she thinks about legacy.

 “You know, he was tough,” she said. “My family's tough. I just think like, how overwhelming to immigrate to a country, a foreign country, and to build this life. And I think I've found that within myself through James' battle. I didn't know how strong I am, honestly didn't know if I had that same toughness. But it's there, and I see it in James.”

St. Jude “is always going to be part of me and my family and our family history,” said Amy. 

Moving forward, childhood cancer is part of it, too. When James first arrived at St. Jude, Amy and Rob were asked if there was any history of childhood cancer in the family. In their whole large family, there was none. But from that point forward, the answer became yes. 

James continues to receive treatment at St. Jude.

“Our lives were forever changed with James’ cancer diagnosis,” said Amy. “I sing the praises of St. Jude all the time because… you don't really know, I guess, until you’ve been through it. You see so many people here, meet so many people from completely different backgrounds, don't speak the same languages, but we all want the same thing. We all want our children to have long, meaningful lives.

“My great-grandfather helped raise money for St. Jude in its infancy, and now he has a great-great-grandson being treated there. It's people like him that made St. Jude what it is today. 

“We're all here for a short while. And what's going to be your mark? What's going to be what you’re remembered by? Make it meaningful. Make it impactful. You may never know what impact your actions today will have on the future.”

James continues to receive treatment at St. Jude

Jack, who started his life in Lebanon, died in Tennessee in 1998. His gravestone is inscribed with this epitaph: I Tried. In terms of making a difference, his family believes he more than succeeded.

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