J.C. Penney jewelry executive Pam Mortensen was one of 14 people who took the trip to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis with Jewelers for Children last month. Here, Mortensen, who’s also the current JFC board chair, helps a young patient finish up her bracelet.
Memphis, Tenn.--It costs $2.4 million a day to keep St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis running.

That adds up to a little more than half a billion dollars a year that goes into patient care, research, food, and housing and services for patients and their families, none of whom ever receive a bill.

Approximately 75 percent of the costs of operating St. Jude are covered by public donations and the average donation is $40. There are also big corporations and organizations, like Jewelers for Children, that raise large sums of money for the hospital every year.

And every couple years, the charity takes a trip to Memphis so those who donate can see what their money is helping to do.

This year, JFC invited National Jeweler along on its tour of St. Jude, a research hospital that got its start with a broke entertainer who couldn’t pay his hospital bill and a promise to a saint.

Thomas’s Promise
As the story goes, Danny Thomas--the “Jimmy Fallon of his time,” as one St. Jude employee put it--did not have the $70 needed to get his wife, Rose Marie, out of the hospital after their daughter Marlo was born in 1937.

So, like any good Catholic, he prayed to a saint for a solution, St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of lost causes. He promised to build him a shrine if he came through.

The next day, he got a call to play a singing toothbrush on the radio, a job that paid $75.

Years later, after his career had taken off, Thomas heard the story of an African-American boy in the South who had been hit by a car while riding his bicycle.

The child’s injuries were treatable, but he died after a hospital refused to treat him because of the color of his skin.

This helped Thomas decide exactly how he was going to keep his promise--by opening a children’s hospital where every child would receive treatment, regardless of their race, religion or ability to pay.

Though he was from Detroit, Thomas picked Memphis because it was the hometown of a cardinal who had been a mentor, Cardinal Samuel Stritch.

20171110 JFC plaqueOne of two plaques at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that pays homage to all the money JFC’s donated over the years. Also of note are the walls, which are painted with colorful murals like this throughout the hospital.
The original St. Jude was erected in 1962.

Though it has undergone a complete reconstruction since, the JFC tour of St. Jude took the group through the Pioneer Hallway, which, along with the statue of St. Jude out front, is one of the few remaining original structures.

On one side of the hallway are the names of the people, some of them well-known like Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis, Jr., who were early supporters of the hospital.

There are also, on a different floor, two plaques that feature a symbol well-known to many who are reading this article: the JFC’s block logo.

Since its inception in 1999, Jewelers for Children has raised a total of $13 million for St. Jude, Executive Director David Rocha said.

Here’s where that money went: $1.5 million to the Bone Marrow Transplantation Laboratory; $600,000 for a Stem Cell Transplant Laboratory; $2 million for a chair in Genetics and Gene Therapy; $5 million for research into the immune system during bone marrow transplants; and $3 million for research into using parents as bone marrow donors.

Now, JFC is funding the Bone Marrow Human Applications Laboratory for $3 million, $750,000 of which was paid in 2016 and 2017.

The Million Key Movement
Among the participants on the St. Jude trip was Steven Vardi, who is working to raise a lot of money for JFC through the sale of key pendants.

20171110 Million KeyA gold version of the “Love Is the Key” pendant
Vardi is the third generation of his family in the jewelry business. He runs Vardi Company, the manufacturing firm he started with his brother Michael in 2005.

A year ago, they launched the “Million Key Movement” using a design that a teacher named Gail Cain brought to Vardi Company and asked them to make--a key-shaped pendant with the word “love” at the tip where the bit would be.

The goal of the movement is to sell enough keys, which are available in various metals with or without gemstones, to raise $1 million for JFC while, at the same time, inspiring a movement that brings people together and makes them feel good about the jewelry they are buying.

The keys are sold on the Million Key Movement website, and Vardi said he’d like to create programs with the keys tailored to both major and independent retailers.

“I know that we all have a common goal; anyone who supports JFC has a common goal of helping,” he said. “This is our part. This is something that we felt we can do.”

20171110 Judy at St. JudeJudy Fisher, senior vice president of merchandising at Signet Jewelers Ltd., helps a young St. Jude patient finish up her bracelet. Outside of JFC, Signet has made a $60 million commitment to the hospital, and St. Jude’s lone cafeteria is called the Kay Kafe, after Kay Jewelers.
The Vardi Company also gave 75 keys to Make-a-Wish wish recipients this year and is donating 250 to the patients and families at St. Jude.

Vardi brought some of those 250 along to Memphis, handing them out during the final segment of the hospital tour when the group gathered outside the Kay Kafe (Kay Jewelers’ parent company, Signet Jewelers Ltd., is a huge donor to the hospital, outside of JFC) to--what else?--make jewelry with St. Jude patients.

Later, back in New York, Vardi talked about the experience of handing out those keys to the children, and the parents of those children, at St. Jude.

People at the hospital, he said, love getting the key; it’s “something to hold onto, something that’s positive.”

Because it’s part of a larger movement that links people together through the use of a hashtag (#MillionKeyMovement), the keys also remind people that they are not alone in their struggles.

And that is a big part of what the patients and families get at St. Jude--a network of people to lean on who understand.

The staff who took the group around the hospital and, later, The Target House, one of St. Jude’s three facilities for patients and families who require long-term care, tell stories of families who became bonded for life after meeting there and patients who met at the hospital as children, grew up and got married.

That’s why, when asked to pick a word to describe his experience at the hospital and Vardi said “normal,” it made sense.

No one at St. Jude is made to feel like an outsider, ever, and everybody is treated the same whether they are a patient, a family member or a visitor. It feels more like a small, very well-run community where everybody is working toward a common goal--curing childhood cancers--than it does a hospital.

“If you had to use a word, I would say we felt normal the whole time,” Vardi concluded. “And that’s actually a big deal.”

Editor’s note: The caption on the photo featuring Signet executive Judy Fisher was updated post-publication to reflect the fact that Signet Jewelers Ltd. has made a $60 million committment to the hospital, not $16 million as originally reported.

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