Published on Thursday, August 24, 2017
Media Contact: Amanda Manning Markow
NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Under the Rainbow, the semi-annual magazine for Children's of Mississippi.
From rocking babies to raising millions of dollars to fight childhood cancer, the Junior League of Jackson has worked for decades to help the University of Mississippi Medical Center.Most recently, the Junior League of Jackson’s good stewardship and community philanthropy practices have added up to a $400,000 donation to The Campaign for Children’s of Mississippi, a $100 million fund drive to expand and update space dedicated to pediatric care including an enlarged and renovated neonatal intensive care unit, more rooms for the pediatric intensive care unit, more operating rooms and the creation of an imaging clinic especially for pediatric patients. Their support of pediatric care at UMMC, though, spans decades.
Since its inception in 1941, members of the nonprofit group have continuously sought out ways to work for the betterment of their community. The JLJ’s official mission is to promote voluntarism, “developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.” Health care has been a top priority among the League’s community projects from day one. In the early 1940s, the Junior League of Jackson helped find a location for and maintain the Community Hospital, which had developed from the merger of the Free Baby Clinic and the County Maternity Center in 1940. The 1950s mark the Junior League’s first involvement with the University of Mississippi Medical Center. They helped endorse and advocate to the Mississippi Legislature for the establishment of a four-year medical school and teaching hospital in Jackson.
“For as long as I can remember, we’ve been somehow partnered with UMMC,” said 2016-2017 JLJ President Melanie Hataway. “Children’s Hospital really does hit on two of our three impact areas, including children's health and social development. It aligns perfectly with what we’re doing in the community.”
Starting in the 1980s, the League turned their attention toward what is now Children’s of Mississippi. JLJ purchased and donated a “neonatal cradle,” an ambulance designed for neonatal care, in conjunction with the launch of their project, Rockin’ Mamas. Rockin’ Mamas is one of the League’s oldest projects. Volunteers rock and provide stimulation to premature infants at UMMC when parents or caregivers can’t be there as often as they would like. The project started in 1980, and was always a top choice for volunteers. In the last couple of years, it has evolved into an opportunity for Sustaining Members. These are members who have fulfilled their required years of active service and are still involved in the League. Shortly after Rockin’ Mamas was initiated, REACH, an acronym for Recreation, Enrichment, and Assistance for Children’s Health, was launched. Today, volunteers interact with patients in the hospital activity rooms and at bedside. They play games, make crafts and try to help the children take their minds off treatment for a little while. They also plan and host seasonal parties for patients, keeping their health needs in mind.“There’s something for every child—gluten-free cupcakes, for example,” said Hataway. “We try to ensure that everyone is included.” When REACH first began, the volunteers had no idea it would quickly become one of the League’s largest and most significant signature projects to date, fundraising for the Children’s Cancer Center. “We had the idea to help start the Ronald McDonald House, and I went to see Dr. Jeanette Pullen,” said Sandra Maris of Jackson, an active JLJ member in the mid-1980s. Pullen is now professor emeritus in pediatric hematology/oncology. A property had already been secured for the Ronald McDonald House, but Pullen said the hospital needed help checking in pediatric cancer patients.
“The outline for the project was to assist families with children with cancer,” said Suzan Thames of Jackson, honorary chair of Friends of Children’s Hospital, a nonprofit group dedicated to raising funds for Batson Children’s Hospital. “We could help the entry lines move faster. We checked height, weight, temperature and expedited that process. We tried to make the whole process of a child having cancer and coming to the clinic weekly smoother and friendlier.”“All volunteers immediately saw the desperate need for a new facility,” she said. At that time, all patients were held in one waiting area, which left children with compromised immune systems exposed to everything that came through the door. The space was small, too, meaning there was no true sound barrier from procedure rooms. “It was so obvious, working there, that we needed more space,” said Nancy Studdard, who chaired the project for two years. Said Thames: “We knew we had wonderful doctors and good treatment, but attracting and keeping physicians in a facility that needed so much work was getting harder.” Maris called the Association of Junior Leagues International to ask if any League had ever taken on a project like this; they initially said yes. “When I called back later to get more information, they said no one had ever done it before.” On blind faith, dedication to children’s health and sheer determination, the women set out to raise $2 million for a new Children’s Cancer Clinic.
“The biggest hurdle was that this had never been done before. This was totally new turf. We had to learn as we went, but we never doubted we could do it,” said Thames. The committee had put together an advisory board of outside members, including Howard McMillan and Bryan Jones, among others. One of their main roles was to help set up meetings and get the League invited to present at various groups across Mississippi. The committee traveled around the state in teams of two presenting their slideshow of everything that UMMC accomplishes and needs to anyone willing to listen. They even presented to the Legislature, although they had been told not to try. “This was unheard of, women coming in asking for money,” said Maris.In addition to the presentations, they came up with a “Buy a Brick” campaign. “We sent out thousands of letters asking people to buy a brick with their name on it,” said Ann Calhoon. “We waited and waited and nothing was coming in. I still remember the phone call, ‘Due to an overwhelming response, we have your mail at the counter.’” There were bags and bags of orders. In just under three years, the committee had reached their fundraising goal and celebrated at the groundbreaking in 1989.
“How can you refuse a child with cancer? It’s the easiest fundraising I’ve ever done because you believe in what you’re doing. And Dr. Pullen was so special. You wanted to do anything you could for her,” said Calhoon. “It was such an honor to help Dr. Jeanette Pullen and Dr. Rathi Iyer (pediatric professor emeritus). They both are such dedicated doctors and were so appreciative of our work. They were very helpful as far as what they needed and would bend over backwards to help. I think they were both in tears the day we opened the clinic,” said Studdard.“It was a giant group effort of the Junior League and the people of our state,” added Maris. “When you get Junior League behind you, both with support, funding, and volunteers, you can get a whole lot done,” said Thames. Not long after the Cancer Center fundraising was complete, the JLJ launched the Care Seats project, in which they gave car seats to new mothers in need of safe transportation for their newborns. Nearly 30 years later, the League has stayed active with UMMC, planning a new project for 2017 with the Center for Advancement of Youth. “The goal of CAY is to provide the best evidence-based care for children with developmental and behavioral disorders,” said executive director Dr. David Elkin. Not only do they strive to be a “one-stop shop” where children can receive care quickly and conveniently, but they also aim to provide resources and education to their families and caregivers. The center has been in place four years and receives about 300 new referrals each month. “One of our goals this year is to do more with the patient experience,” said Elkin. Starting in September, JLJ volunteers will host families on UMMC’s campus once a month, with families attending seminars while JLJ volunteers provide activities for children. “We will be training the volunteers on how to interact with these kids,” said Elkin. A former UMMC employee, Hataway is excited for the League to be involved in this project. “We love the work CAY is doing, attempting to focus the care in one place,” she said. And as much as the League has done for UMMC over the years, JLJ members are also grateful to UMMC. “Children’s of Mississippi cares for all economic backgrounds and that also aligns with what we do,” said Hataway. “It allows for our care to reach beyond the Jackson area.”
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