This post was written in partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Grand Ole Opry.
When I took my kids to the St. Jude benefit at the Grand Ole Opry this week, I knew we’d be wowed by the celebrity roster, which included Luke Bryan, Nashville stars Charles Esten and Clare Bowen, and Alabama frontman Randy Owen. What I didn’t know was that a little boy would steal the show — and our hearts. Check out this video and you’ll understand why we were all completely smitten by five-year-old Kael Hill.
Kael is one of thousands of children whose lives have been saved by the doctors at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Before Kael was even born, a mass was spotted on his thigh during a routine ultrasound — The day after he was born, surgery revealed that the tumor was cancerous. Kael started chemotherapy at St. Jude in Memphis when he was just three weeks old. His left leg was removed when he was four weeks old. Since receiving treatment as an infant, he has been thriving and cancer-free. He plays t-ball and soccer and zips around like any other five-year-old.
And on this night, he also got to take the Opry stage as a guest announcer.
Kael also made an appearance with his mom, Ashley, at an Opry press conference. When it was Charles Esten’s turn to talk to reporters, Kael quickly let the Nashville star know he planned to join him at the podium as well.
As you can see, Kael wasn’t shy about all the attention he was getting — He ate it up, and his audience was loving it.
The St. Jude cause is a personal one for Charles Esten — His own daughter was diagnosed with leukemia when she was just two years old. “I thought I knew how to pray when my daughter got sick,” he told us. “I didn’t. I learned how to pray when my daughter got sick.”
Today, his daughter is a healthy 17-year-old who loves playing soccer, and Charles knows St. Jude’s leukemia research had so much to do with her recovery. When the research hospital opened in the early 1960s, most kids didn’t recover from leukemia. Today, more than 80% of children diagnosed with cancer go on to become long-term survivors.
Kael, sweet little @stjude battler being his wonderful self at the @opry. He says: “You’re a paediatric cancer survivor like me, so you can be my sister. C’mon, sis, let’s go see if @lukebryan has any m&m’s!” 💘 Anything for you, little bro. Thankyou everyone, for another wonderful night of #CountryCares 💜✨ #StJude #Opry
Clare Bowen is another childhood cancer survivor who bonded with Kael from the moment she met him. Clare was 4 when she was diagnosed with cancer — The doctors told her parents she had two weeks to live. Clare beat the odds and beat cancer, and now as an adult, she gives back to St. Jude whenever she has an opportunity.
Clare loves that families referred to St. Jude don’t receive a bill for any part of their child’s treatment — From doctor visits to family housing and food, everything is covered by the research hospital. “It’s not really just a hospital, it’s a home,” she explained. “And I think that’s really the most beautiful thing about St. Jude.”
Luke Bryan also got the Kael treatment — He was thrilled to meet Kael and his brother, Brody, backstage before his performance. “The cause of St. Jude is something so near and dear to my heart and to my family’s heart,” he told me.
One of the biggest heroes of the night, though, was someone you might not expect. Alabama lead singer Randy Owen is now a grandfather of six who still performs to enthusiastic crowds — but he’s actually accomplished something even bigger than star status.
Randy founded County Cares for St. Jude Kids back in 1989 after meeting St. Jude founder Danny Thomas. With the help of his fellow country music musicians, Randy has raised $800 MILLION for St. Jude. His latest goal is to make it to $1 billion. When I think of the number of lives that money must have saved over the years, I am completely blown away. Randy is truly an incredible role model.
Although the main research hospital is located in Memphis, St. Jude has a huge presence in Nashville — In addition to this annual Grand Ole Opry benefit, St. Jude sponsors a yearly Run/Walk to End Childhood Cancer, which will take place this weekend and next weekend in dozens of cities across the country. Nashville’s Run/Walk to End Childhood Cancer is tomorrow morning at Nissan Stadium and includes the walk/run and a fun run for kids ages 6 and up. Check the website for all the details you need to participate. Darius Rucker also heads up an annual St. Jude benefit concert at the Ryman each year — This year’s concert raised over a million dollars.
St. Jude needs all the fundraising help it can get — It takes $2 million per day to keep the hospital and its satellite clinics across the country up and running, and most of St. Jude’s funding comes from private donations. There are lots of ways to donate your time or money to St. Jude — To learn more, go to the St. Jude website.
From the celebrities to the audience members to the St. Jude patients who got to attend the benefit, I don’t think anyone will forget this special evening. And I think we can all agree Kael has a bright future ahead of him — a future St. Jude helped make possible.