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For 24 years now, country music has had a strong bond with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. The annual Country Cares conference (which was held Jan 17–19) brings members of the country radio community together with artists and St. Jude patients to help support the hospital's mission of helping children and finding cures for cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
More than 870 registrants attended the 2013 conference and got to tour St. Jude's facilities as well as meet some of the patients. Attending artists included Hunter Hayes, Brantley Gilbert, Joe Nichols, Katie Armiger, The Voice winner Cassadee Pope and X Factor champ Tate Stevens, who all got to make art projects with a group of patients.
Richard Shadyac, CEO of St. Jude and its fundraising arm ALSAC, touched on how important Country Cares is to the organization. "It's meant the world to us because it gives us an opportunity to interact with folks that really do share our mission," he said. "It creates tremendous awareness. It's one of our most significant fundraising programs we have." Since it was founded in 1989 with the help of Alabama's Randy Owen, the Country Cares program has raised more than $440 million to benefit St. Jude.
Many of the attending artists were struck by the overwhelmingly joyful surroundings at St. Jude, including Brantley Gilbert, visiting for his second time.
"Even though it's a cancer hospital and research center, it's a positive place," noted Brantley. "Nurses and doctors seem like they keep the famillies really upbeat and hopeful."
“I was told it was not going to be an average hospital visit," agreed Hunter Hayes. "First of all, it is already happy. It’s joyous. There’s an energy. There’s a positivity. There’s the 'hope' message that lives and breathes in everything, in the people, in the building. It’s more than just bright colors and lots of natural light. It’s the attitude, it’s the hearts and the minds. It’s the way the people operate here. And the way you feel when you come here.”
Cassadee Pope was a first-time visitors and noticed the same thing. "All the kids are hopeful and happy and excited," she said. "It's an environment that makes you smile."
There's compelling evidence that St. Jude's work is critical for combating childhood cancer. When the hospital opened in the '50s, the survival rate was around 20 percent. Thanks to its efforts (and those of like-minded organizations), the rate today is close to 80 percent.
Until kids can live cancer free, you can count on country music to do its part to help spread the word.