St. Jude- Finding Cures. Saving Children.

It began with a prayer. Danny Thomas, a struggling young entertainer, was in search of his life’s purpose and needed direction from the divine. He prayed one evening at a church in Detroit to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. This plea would change not only the course of his life, but also the lives of countless others as well – “Show me my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.” Not long after, his career blossomed, and he became one of the biggest radio, film, and television stars of his era. In 1955, Thomas assembled a group of Memphis businessmen to help him fulfill his vow to St. Jude by building a children’s hospital…but not just any hospital. Thomas knew that at the time, only 20% of children diagnosed with cancer could hope to be cured. Those with the most common form of childhood cancer, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A.L.L.) faced even more grim statistics – only 4% would survive. For Thomas, building a hospital focused on curing pediatric cancer would become his life’s greatest work.

Shane and Mandi Zachary are all too familiar with this seemingly insurmountable foe. In December of 2010 while living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, their son Eli was diagnosed with A.L.L. Eli was only 4 years old, and Mandi vividly recalls the day they learned their son had cancer. She says, “The last few minutes of ‘our lives without cancer’ are surreal. We met with the doctor, he examined Eli, and immediately called in an assistant to verify what he saw.” Unfortunately, what he found warranted enough concern to send Shane, Mandi, and Eli straight to their local hospital, where they were met by a pediatric hematologist who delivered news that no parent wants to hear. Still reeling from the shock of their son’s illness, Mandy and Shane were faced with an immediate decision – did they want to fly or drive the very next day to St. Jude in Memphis?

Despite the devastating situation the Zachary family now faced, there was one obstacle that never stood in the way of taking care of Eli. St. Jude’s mission is “Finding cures. Saving children” and as part of that mission, no family receives a bill for care provided at the hospital. Danny Thomas believed that removing the burden of treatment costs would free families up to help their child conquer a cancer diagnosis. From travel, housing, and even the cost of food, every part of a child’s care at St. Jude is covered through the enormous generosity of donors and volunteers. Mandi says that for their family, this was an unexpected gift. “We didn’t have to think about how we would get there. We didn’t have to think about how we would pay for treatment. Before that thought even entered our minds, we were assured that the financial part would never be a problem. We were only responsible for supporting our son as he got through this huge trial.”

And get through it they did. Recently, the Zachary family relocated to Columbus, Montana in search of a slower pace of life. Shane has been in law enforcement for 22 years and knew it was time to find a way to enjoy his family without the constant rush of a big city. Shane, Mandi, Eli (now 13), and sisters Jocelyn and Emily are quick to point out divine intervention in their move to Montana, not unlike the connection Danny Thomas felt to the hand of God in his own life. “This is the best decision, aside from accepting Jesus, that we have ever made. There are still days that we all look at each other and in utter disbelief say, ‘We live in Montana. We really did it. We moved to Montana!’” Their outlook on a new chapter of life without cancer reflects hope for brighter days ahead. “Eli may one day be diagnosed with another form of cancer. It is not out of the realm of possibility, but we try to live every day to the fullest. We don’t always do our best in looking at the positive in every day, but looking back on the rough spots in life make the great days really stand out.”

The 10-foot-tall marble statue of St. Jude proudly graces the entrance of his namesake hospital, serving as a monument to Danny Thomas’s dream realized. This physical shrine is not the only legacy of Thomas’s dedication to finding a cure for cancer, sickle cell, and other deadly diseases, while also taking care of families and children affected by them. The legacy lives on in stories like that of the Zachary family, who look at their journey through cancer as a tough and scary time, but also as an opportunity for growth. Mandi says, “It is unreal to us how much cancer changes everything, but really, cancer changes us too. Eli summed it up perfectly when he was about 6 years old and nearing completion of treatment. He told me, ‘Mama, I wouldn't ever take away the cancer I had. It made us grow closer to God and closer together as a family.’”

St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway

After experiencing the generosity of St. Jude firsthand, Mandi Zachary wants to encourage others to continue to pay it forward. “Give! Give to St. Jude. Give to cancer research for childhood cancers. They are so much more prevalent than we want to realize. Give so that can change." One way you can give back is by purchasing a ticket for the St. Jude Dream House Giveaway, supported by Classic Design Homes and Q2/KTVQ right here in Billings. Early in 2019, tickets will be available to win a beautiful home built in the Ironwood subdivision, as well as other prizes. Tickets are $100 apiece, and all proceeds go directly to St. Jude. Drawings will be held in Spring of 2019, and one ticket enters you into drawings for the house and secondary prizes. The sooner you get your ticket, the more prizes you are eligible for. Please call 1 (888) 868-9846 or visit www.stjude.org for more information.

about the author...Brooke Wagner is a Southern girl at heart, but a Montana girl by choice. She lives in Billings with her husband, three children, one dog who thinks she is human, and one very therapeutic horse.

featured photo by Jana Graham Photography