Marlo Thomas celebrates Thanks and Giving’s 20th year and $1 billion raised for St. Jude hospital

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When families thank Marlo Thomas for the medical treatment they received at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she kindly 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 has been famous since her days starring in “That Girl.” “I take the wheelbarrow, put the money in it and bring 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 passing the fundraising milestone of $1 billion to support the hospital’s efforts to provide free medical care to children with cancer. The drive, which kicked off earlier this month and runs through the holiday season, also raises awareness for the work of the Memphis-based hospital, which was founded by her father, the late “Make Room for Daddy” star Danny Thomas, who pledged that families would never be billed by St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food.

“That’s an amazing promise,” Marlo Thomas said. “And we’ve kept 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 No. 2, behind only Doctors Without Borders USA. Nonprofit ratings organization 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 that donors can expect that their gifts will be used according to the hospital’s stated mission, said Kevin Scally, Charity Navigator’s chief relationship officer.

“It’s a household name and they’ve built a reputation over many years,” Scally said. “To take care of children stricken with cancer and taking care of their families to the point where the families don’t incur any sort of costs – that’s something that really pulls at the heartstrings, whether you’re somebody that has had a family member that’s been hit with cancer or not.”

Marlo Thomas credits the Thanks and Giving campaign – an idea that she developed with her sister, Terre, and her brother, Tony – for making that possible.

Back in 2003, the Thomases realized they needed a new fundraising campaign that would raise about $100 million a year.

“We thought, ‘What about doing a national day, which had never been done for any charity?’ ” Thomas recalled. “We decided, Thanksgiving was a perfect time because it’s not about anybody’s religion. Everybody gets together. It’s the one holiday of the year where families really do gather. And it’s my favorite holiday because it’s all about food and family.”

Her sister, Terre, came up with the name Thanks and Giving and they created a concept that updated how her father raised awareness and funds.

“My dad in his day brought in Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole and George Burns and all those great stars,” she said. “In our generation, we brought in Robin Williams – may he rest in peace – and Jennifer Aniston, Luis Fonzi, Michael Strahan, Jon Hamm, and a lot of wonderful contemporary stars who’ve helped us.”

They also brought in numerous retailers – including Target, Best Buy, Williams-Sonoma and Domino’s Pizza – who ask customers to contribute to St. Jude as they check out throughout the holiday season.

“It’s a very exciting campaign because it came out of our family,” Thomas said. “My dad would be really thrilled and proud that we thought of it together and we made it happen.”

Unlike most hospitals, which fund their medical treatment with a mix of payments from patients and insurance, St. Jude funds 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 America and the people of America send in the donations,” she 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 treatments for childhood cancer around the world. Currently, outside of the United States, more than half of children with cancer will die from the disease. In the U.S., the survival rate for childhood cancer 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 cancer from Ukraine after the Russian invasion began, Thomas said. Russian bombings during the war made it impossible for the children to continue their cancer treatment at hospitals in Ukraine.

“We took eight families ourselves,” said Thomas, adding that the hospital found that one of the Ukrainian children had been misdiagnosed. “We also organized it so that these children and their families could be taken in other countries around the world – in Switzerland, Egypt, all kinds of countries – where they opened their hearts to these children.”

Thomas said that is the natural continuation of the story of St. Jude that she hopes the Thanks and Giving campaign helps tell.

“My father said that no child should die in the dawn of life,” she said. “He didn’t mean ‘no American child.’ He meant no child anywhere.”

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Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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