Sadie Briggs has always known about St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The hospital is part of her family history: Her great-grandfather, Joe Shaker Sr., worked with Danny Thomas to help found the hospital, which opened in 1962.
“St. Jude has always been part of my life,” said Briggs, a senior at Fenwick High School in Oak Park and a parishioner at St. Luke in River Forest.
But she never had any personal involvement until she was a freshman in high school and her grandfather, also named Joe Shaker, recommended her to be the youngest member of the inaugural class of the St. Jude Leadership Society.
The society is for high school-age young people who want to develop an ongoing relationship with St. Jude, said Amy Junge, director of field engagement for St. Jude. The first class included 27 Chicago-area teens who worked with mentors to plan and execute fundraisers for St. Jude.
Each member is asked to raise $2,500, although there is no penalty if they do not meet the goal. That first group raised about $90,000. This year, the society has about 200 students participating in 11 cities, with plans to add five more cities next year.
“Every year we like to have a class of about 30 students in each city,” Junge said. “We don’t want it to get too big. We don’t want to alter the experience.”
That experience aims to raise money and create lifelong relationships with supporters, Junge said, but it also helps its members develop a list of skills that will be important for them: project planning and management, networking, adaptability and the ability to ask for what they want.
“When Danny Thomas founded St. Jude, he called on his friends, especially his Syrian and Lebanese networks,” Junge said. “We want them to be able to identify their networks and be able to call on them.”
“When I started, I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Briggs said.
The program included attending a series of presentations on leadership skills, planning and carrying out a project —Briggs sold bracelets to raise money — and a summer visit to Memphis to learn more about the work of St. Jude, which operates without asking the families of its young patients for payment and makes all of its research freely available.
“That was actually my first time visiting St. Jude, and it was really inspiring,” Briggs said.
Once she returned from the visit, Briggs wanted to find a way to stay involved. Junge suggested she help develop a program for Leadership Society alumni to coach new members as they develop their projects.
“They still have their adult mentor, but they can also have a peer coach,” Briggs said. “Because sometimes teenagers understand another teenager better.”
Last year, Briggs coached two other Fenwick students, who worked together to host a fundraising bowling party with food and raffles, she said. Because of her work on the coaching program, she was invited back to Memphis to speak to all the program participants.
The society also is staying in contact with its members as they go through college and looking for ways to build on the relationship, Junge said.
At the same time, it adds cities each year.
Briggs said she is hoping to do an internship with St. Jude when she is in college.
In the Chicago area, the society has found a foothold in Catholic high schools, with students at Carmel Catholic High School and Loyola Academy also involved.
Junge, a Catholic school parent with children at Carmel and St. Gilbert School in Grayslake, said Catholic school students understand their responsibility to help others in much the same way Danny Thomas did.
“He made a promise through a prayer, and was struggling to figure it all out,” Junge said, recounting how Thomas made a promise to “do something big” in St. Jude’s name if God helped show him the way forward.
According to the National Shrine of St. Jude at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the far South Side, he was doing radio commercials and a nightclub act in Chicago when he found one of the shrine’s leaflets at St. Clement Church in Lincoln Park.
He renewed his devotion to St. Jude, and his career took off even more.
“When he became famous, he kept his promise,” Junge said. “Danny reached out to his network, his friends and colleagues, and invited people to join him in his belief that we all have a responsibility to give back to our community and country in gratitude for our many blessings, and we have a responsibility to stay to true to the parable of the Good Samaritan. We do have to take care of our neighbor.”
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