Today, Donna Cathcart would probably have been married with a couple of children, and her parents, Susan and Fred, would be half-heartedly resisting the urge to spoil them.
But that’s not the path that fate chose for the Cathcart family of Jonesboro, Ark.
Donna was nine years old and a third-grader at Jonesboro’s Hillcrest Elementary School when she was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer called pontine glioma. Survival beyond 12 months to 14 months is uncommon. Donna went though chemotherapy and had 60 radiation treatments at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, but the tumor, located in her brain stem, refused to stop growing. Eventually, doctors discontinued her treatments to make her remaining time more comfortable. She lived for nine months after her diagnosis, time the Cathcarts were grateful for.
Donna dealt with the situation “amazingly well,” Susan said. “We never sat down and discussed with her that it was terminal. I think she knew it. The hospital was so fabulous. They have such great emotional and spiritual support in addition to the medical care, and that helps the kids really deal with it wonderfully.
“St. Jude is not just there for the child. It’s there for the entire family. There were support groups for Natalie (Donna’s sister). Everybody there, from the nurses to the housekeepers, were there to give you hope.”
After Donna died, her parents, owners of Valley View Agri-Systems in Jonesboro, could think of only one thing to do — fight back against the disease that had taken their daughter.
“We vowed that we would work tirelessly so that someday no child would have to endure what she went through, and that no parent would know the grief Fred and I have suffered,” Susan said.
The following year, the Cathcarts held a fundraiser to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Around 300 people attended, and it made over $14,000. Over the next 19 years, the benevolence spread through the community of Jonesboro in Donna’s name, as both corporate involvement and visitor attendance grew by leaps and bounds. In 2011, the benefit raised over $300,000. By 2012, the fundraiser, now called the St. Jude S’travaganza, held annually on Super Bowl Sunday, had raised a total of $2.3 million for the hospital.
Donna would have been 28 years old this year, about the same age as volunteer T. J. Thompson, an engineer with Valley View, and one of a few hundred people who volunteer time to the event.
“Our customers are huge supporters, but even our competitors come,” said Thompson. “We have a whole team of people who come in and build platforms for the silent auctions. Valley View employees help plan and set up the event.”
Corporate donations of labor, equipment, food, prizes, money and items for silent auction are crucial to the success of the fundraiser. Over 350 silent auction items were donated in 2012. A major donation this year came from OPI-integris, headquartered in Canada, which donated a grain management system.
While non-agricultural industries have come on board over time, about 75 percent of the businesses involved are agriculture-related.
Randy Woodard with Cache River Valley Seed, who brings in food and grills, and recruits employees and a few customers to help with cooking, said, “We’ve been doing this since about the time the event started. It’s a great cause.”
The doors to the St. Jude S’travaganza open at 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of the Super Bowl, which was Feb. 5 this year. In 2012, the event was held at the old Rowsey Furniture store location on Hwy. 1 in Jonesboro, but in 2013, it will return to the Craighead County Fairgrounds.
The silent auction begins promptly, with visitors bidding on a wide variety of donated items, from beach house vacations to ag equipment and supplies. The event also sells raffle tickets for prizes and t-shirts to raise money.
This year over 1,300 attended, many of them farmers or in agriculture-related fields, who paid $125 per ticket. They were treated to a dinner of crawfish, smoked chicken, shrimp and ribs and watched the Super Bowl on 20 flat screen televisions set up throughout the facility. After all expenses had been paid, the event raised $313,000 for St. Jude, a record for the fundraiser. (For more on the event, including pictures of Donna, visit the Valley View Web site at http://www.valleyviewagri.com/view/84.)
Today, Susan and Fred continue to work at their business and are starting to plan for the next fundraiser, which is a full-time job from December through January. “Fred works as hard as I do or harder,” Susan said. “He is so involved. He raises more money, he gets corporate donations, and he sells tickets, cooks and cleans.”
Their daughter, Natalie, 29, is now an occupational therapist at Germantown Methodist Hospital, near Memphis, and also volunteers for the fundraiser.
The Cathcarts have no plans of slowing down anytime soon. “People have asked me how long we’re going to do this,” said Susan, who in 2005 was honored as Volunteer of the Year for St. Jude’s fund-raising arm. “We say until we save the last child.”
On the Valley View Web site, there is a quote from St. Jude founder, the late Danny Thomas that reads, “Success in life has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others.”
By that standard, pretty, brown-haired Donna, who loved dancing, gymnastics and art lessons, has done more than most.
That’s the way her parents see it, too.
Donna may have left this life too early, but she remains the driving force behind her parents’ efforts to raise money for St. Jude. She’s responsible for the busy band of volunteers, the faces of St. Jude children on posters throughout the building, the hundreds of visitors who allow themselves to be touched by her courageous story and in the behind-the-scenes philanthropy of agriculture and other corporations that fill every shelf and table in the building with hope that one day all children will have a chance to live long and happy lives.
That’s quite an accomplishment for nine short years on Earth.