The business side of music can sometimes bring your spirits down a bit, but a visit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis can quickly put things in perspective. One person who found that to be the case is country music newcomer Kassi Ashton, who admitted that seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces there is something she didn’t quite expect.
“Seeing everyone’s face — from the nurses to the doctors — everyone is so happy,” she said after a recent visit to the hospital, which entertainer Danny Thomas established in 1962. “It’s infectious. I’m told that it’s like this every day. I want to come back here every weekend. This now has a new place in my heart. I love kids anyway, but to see ones who are going through this and are so strong and courageous, it’s incredible.”
For Ashton, who just released the song “California, Missouri” to digital outlets, the visit — part of the annual Country Cares for St. Jude Kids event in late January — truly hit home – as she was once a former cancer patient (though not at St. Jude). She said having had that experience as a teenager gave her a little more insight into the patient’s struggles. “I’ve just been whispering to the kids ‘I went through the same thing you’re going through right now, so when you come out of it like the superstar you are, we’ll get you some of this lipstick.’ I’m not trying to make it about myself. I just want to let them know in a quiet way that we did this together, and you’ve got this.”
Visiting with the patients at St. Jude is an emotional experience, and one also makes Ashton — and others like her — wonder, why? “Most of the patients I met today are all under the age of 10,” she said. “I went through what I went through when I was 19 or 20. I can’t imagine being 8 and doing it. It’s hard enough to understand when you’re my age, but when you’re that age, you just don’t get it. All you get is what your parents tell you. Maybe they show you an MRI machine on a doll, and you don’t get why you have this and nobody else does. I see how happy they are and that it’s not bothering them. They feel like they’re at Disney World. I wish I could have held their hand when I did it. It’s so inspiring and so beautiful. If I ever have a bad day, screw it, it’s not that bad.”
Though multiple musical formats work with St. Jude, the country genre has helped to raise over $750 million dollars for the facility since Thomas recruited the help of Alabama lead singer Randy Owen to spur awareness of St. Jude in 1989. Hundreds of radio stations around the United States hold yearly telethons to raise money, and this year’s fundraising effort includes the trendy “This Shirt Saves Lives” campaign, with artists such as Brett Eldredge, Maren Morris and Luke Bryan donning the gray T-shirt. “I want to thank the Country Music industry for taking this on with us,” said Richard C. Shadyac Jr., president and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “I challenged our team to do something different. Sometimes, we’ve done T-shirts, but I told them, ‘You have to come up with a cool one — something that people really want to wear.’ They did that. So far, we’ve raised close to a million dollars in this campaign already and have added tens of thousands of new donors to our file. We’re turning on more people to the mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital so that we can save more kids’ lives. It’s been amazing how well it has turned out.”
At the end of the day, the sales of the shirt — and all fundraising efforts — are for one solitary cause. “All we want to do is to find ways to help bring people into this family and mission. We want to do whatever it’s going to take to let people know that cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease among kids today. That’s unacceptable to us. We want to make sure that everybody knows that. I think the coolest thing about the shirt campaign is that the idea came from two former patients — Jessica and Scott — who now work at ALSAC. They are just amazing people. It was their idea.”
St. Jude has done a staggering amount of good in the fight against childhood cancer, but Shadyac maintains there is more work to be done. “One in five are going to pass away. I’m blessed to go to recitals and hear folks sing and things like that for survivors, but I also go to funerals, and I’m with the patients in their last days. So, that’s a reminder that our work isn’t close to being done.”
One of those survivors is Corinth, Mississippi, high school student Addie Pratt, who recalled for Billboard her battle with acute myeloid leukemia. “I wasn’t really scared,” she said of receiving her prognosis a few years ago. “I didn’t immediately start crying. I was more shocked and confused than anything else about what was happening. I couldn’t really take everything in during that moment. I was there for six months, and I didn’t get to come home at all. I look back on it, and there were so many things that could have gone wrong, but every little detail St. Jude takes care of — transportation, meals, everything. I couldn’t have had a better experience with the circumstances I was in.”
And helping to make the St. Jude experience go as smoothly as possible is the man at the top: Shadyac. Of him, Pratt says, “Rick has a personal relationship with every child in the hospital. He makes it his mission to do everything he can for these kids. It’s more than just work for him. The success stories are his favorite part of it all. He gets to see these kids that he’s worked hard for go out and live their lives, and he continues to be a part of our lives even after we left St. Jude.”
Though she is now cancer-free, Pratt is still adding to her St. Jude chapter with the release of her song “I Hold On” to iTunes. Its lyrics are straight from her pen — and heart. “I wrote it about three or four months during my treatment. I was having a rough day. A lot of things had gone wrong, and one night, I just started writing this song. It was exactly what I needed to say at that moment. It was a gift from God. I don’t even take credit for it. God allowed me to hold the pencil for it.” All proceeds from the song will benefit St. Jude.
How can readers help the work that the tireless doctors and specialists at the hospital perform? It’s simple, says Kassi Ashton: “Donate. Tell everyone you know. They say that the average donation is $35, which is nothing. If you do a Starbucks every day, you can do that donation in less than a week. It goes toward much — and not just the patients. They care about the siblings and the families — everyone is just as taken care of as the patient. That’s incredible. It’s simply a special place.”