NEW YORK — When families thank Marlo Thomas for the medical treatment they received at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she graciously corrects them.
“I say, ‘Well, you know, I’m not a scientist, I’m a wheelbarrow,’” the actress, producer and activist says with a smile that’s been famous since her days starring in “That Girl.” “I take the wheelbarrow, put the money in it and take it to the scientists.”
And Thomas, who serves as St. Jude’s National Outreach Director, is a really good wheelbarrow.
This year, St. Jude’s Thanks and Giving campaign celebrates its 20th anniversary and surpassed the $1 billion fundraising milestone to support the hospital’s efforts to provide free medical care to children with cancer. The campaign, which began earlier this month and will run through the holiday season, also raises awareness for the work of the Memphis-based hospital, founded by his father, the late “Make Room for Daddy” star Danny Thomas. who pledged that St. Jude would never bill families for treatment, travel, lodging or food.
“That’s an amazing promise,” Marlo Thomas said. “And we have maintained it.”
According to Fidelity Charitable’s annual ranking of the most popular nonprofits supported by its donor-advised funds, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital ranks second, behind only Doctors Without Borders USA. The rating organization Nonprofit Charity Navigator says St. Jude ranks third among its most followed charities, behind Doctors Without Borders and the American Red Cross. Charity Navigator also gives St. Jude a rare 100% score, meaning donors can expect their donations to be used in accordance with the hospital’s stated mission, said Kevin Scally, Charity Navigator’s chief relationship officer.
“It’s a well-known name and they’ve built a reputation over many years,” Scally said. “Taking care of children affected by cancer and caring for their families to the point where the families don’t incur any kind of cost, that’s something that’s really moving, whether you’re someone who’s had a family member who’s been affected by cancer. cancer or not.”
Marlo Thomas credits the Thanks and Giving campaign (an idea she developed with her sister Terre and brother Tony) for making it possible.
In 2003, the Thomases realized they needed a new fundraising campaign that would raise about $100 million a year.
“We thought, ‘How about we celebrate a national day, which has never been done with any charity before?’ “Tomás recalled. “We decided Thanksgiving was the perfect time because it’s not about anyone’s religion. Everyone gets together. It’s the only holiday of the year when families really get together. And it’s my favorite holiday because it’s about food and family.”
His sister, Terre, came up with the name Thanks and Giving and they created a concept that updated the way their father raised awareness and funds.
“My father in his day brought Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, George Burns and all those big stars,” he said. “In our generation, we brought in Robin Williams (may he rest in peace) and Jennifer Aniston, Luis Fonzi, Michael Strahan, Jon Hamm and many wonderful contemporary stars who have helped us.”
They also attracted numerous retailers, including Target, Best Buy, Williams-Sonoma and Domino’s Pizza, which ask customers to contribute to St. Jude when they shop during the holiday season.
“It’s a very exciting campaign because it came from our family,” Thomas said. “My dad would be really excited and proud that we thought of it together and made it happen.”
Unlike most hospitals, which finance their medical treatment with a combination of patient payments and insurance, St. Jude finances about 80% of treatment costs with donations — about $2 billion each year. However, Thomas said believing in the generosity of the American public has become part of the hospital’s success.
“That’s why they call it ‘America’s hospital,’ because the children come from all over the United States and the people of the United States send donations,” he said. “It couldn’t exist without American donors.”
And following a $200 million investment in St. Jude Global in 2021, the hospital hopes to offer its childhood cancer treatments worldwide. Today, outside the United States, more than half of children with cancer will die from the disease. In the United States, the childhood cancer survival rate is now 80%, up from 20% when St. Jude first opened its doors.
St. Jude Global worked with the World Health Organization to rescue more than 1,000 children with breast cancer. Ukraine after the Russian invasion began, Thomas said. Russian bombing during the war made it impossible for children to continue their cancer treatment in Ukrainian hospitals.
“We took eight families ourselves,” Thomas said, adding that the hospital discovered that one of the Ukrainian children had been misdiagnosed. “We also organized it so that these children and their families could be taken to other countries in the world (in Switzerland, Egypt, all kinds of countries) where they opened their hearts to these children.”
Thomas said it’s a natural continuation of the St. Jude story he hopes the Thanks and Giving campaign will help tell.
“My father said that no child should die at the dawn of life,” he said. “He didn’t mean ‘no American boy.’ He meant no child anywhere.”
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