Nine-year-old Audrey Stanger can’t play guitar. But she was given one — signed by Charlie Daniels, no less — on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry Tuesday night.
Stanger, who counts herself as a country music fan with Taylor Swift at the top of her list, has been a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis for three years. Last Tuesday she had surgery for removal of a small inflammatory myofibroblastic tumor. This Tuesday she was a guest announcer on the world’s longest-running radio show.
Stanger’s appearance and new guitar were part of a special 25th anniversary of Country Cares for St. Jude Kids show. A sold-out Opry audience heard the Charlie Daniels Band, Jonathan Jackson and Sam Palladio from ABC’s Nashville (which premieres tonight for its third season), Bill Anderson, Brad Paisley and many others perform and talk about their connection to the charity. A portion of ticket proceeds was donated to Country Cares for St. Jude Kids. During the show, images from Country Cares’ first 25 years were shown on the Opry barn screen.
Paisley was introduced to the program, founded in 1989, by its creator, Alabama’s Randy Owen. “He is to be credited for his perception of country music as benevolent, music with heart,” Paisley said. “He is the reason for our good name.”
Daniels agrees, suggesting that Owen should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring country stars — new and established — to help raise funds for and awareness of St. Jude. The stars visit the hospital, and, with no exceptions, say one of the differences between it and other facilities is that it has an optimistic and hopeful energy. “Kids don’t stop being kids because they are sick,” says Paisley, who has seen kids riding trikes in the hallways. Walls are brightly colored, and patients take part in arts and crafts and other activities along with their treatment.
To date the partnership has raised $500 million, and Owen says he hopes he “lives to see $1 billion.” He calls the partnership “the Miracle on Music Row.” Owen, who started the program after meeting hospital founder Danny Thomas, declined to say who he sees filling his shoes with the philanthropy, but concedes he has some names in mind, and is watching them to see who has “the heart, honesty and integrity and the willingness. So many people give money and walk away. The important thing for something like this is to give money and don’t walk away.”
The money raised helps fund the hospital’s mission to provide care to every child in need, regardless of ability to pay. That includes associated expenses, not just medical care. For example, says Stanger’s mother Lynn, the hospital pays to fly her and her daughter from their home in East Tennessee or reimburse her for gas for the 8-hour (each way) drive. As its name suggests, the hospital also does research to find cures, and the laboratories and science are part of what Daniels finds so inspiring about the place.
But the partnership is not just about the money; it is about the awareness that only country stars can deliver. Fundraisers run on hundreds of radio stations across the country reinforce the awareness message with an opportunity to give.
“The awareness is so important. After learning what they do, I don’t see how people can’t give,” Daniels says.
“The amazing thing about St. Jude is, in a world that is so focused on ourselves, they are focused on helping kids no matter what world they are born into,” adds Eric Paslay, another of the night’s performers. “When you support St. Jude, it means you are helping kids that could help cure you someday, sing for you and be your neighbor.”