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Unlikely inspiration

I’ve toured hundreds — maybe thousands — of places during my 10-year career in travel journalism. But a short visit to Memphis this spring led to a tour experience like no other I had ever had: a visit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

I spent two days in Memphis to attend a tourism conference hosted by the Public Relations Society of America where I spoke on a panel about emerging markets in group travel. During that time, I enjoyed some Memphis tourism mainstays such as Graceland and the Peabody Hotel. But it was an experience outside the tourism world that made an impact on me.

My visit to St. Jude isn’t an activity that I would probably have picked on my own. Fortunately, I have a friend in the city who knew I should see the place. Marsha Mack Goberish is a Memphis-based travel writer who writes a lot of articles for our publications. When I asked Marsha if she wanted to meet for breakfast or lunch, her response was enthusiastic: “Absolutely. I’m going to take you on a tour of Memphis that the CVB would never show you.”

There was nothing seedy about Marsha’s tour. She took me to a breakfast dive that served an amazing grilled cheese sandwich, then drove me to St. Jude. She and her husband have been proud supporters of the hospital for years and have toured it many times. Although hospitals generally make me nervous, I decided to follow along with Marsha’s instincts.

I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by my time at St. Jude. Volunteer guides give public tours of the hospital complex twice a day, telling visitors the story of founder Danny Thomas and his mission to provide free medical care to children with catastrophic diseases. The research done at St. Jude has helped to raise the survivor rate among young patients with cancer to more than 80 percent. And every bit of care, from chemotherapy to meals, housing and transportation, is provided free of charge by the hospital group. An international community of corporate sponsors and more than 700,000 individual donors make this possible.

Unlike many hospitals, which can be dreary, depressing and smelly places, St. Jude is uplifting and inspiring. The hallways are painted with brightly colored murals, and every furnishing and fixture throughout the facility is designed to be kid-friendly. And although I saw many young people there whose bald heads and gaunt frames underscored the serious medical conditions they are facing, there is no air of despair to be found. Instead, those children’s faces revealed expressions of hope.

At the end of our tour, I was both sobered and inspired. Even in this age of material abundance and technological advancement, there are crises that the most resourceful among us cannot face on our own. But how great it is to know that there is a place like St. Jude, where thousands of people team up to take on one of life’s biggest problems. This is a community that radiates hope.

If you’re ever looking for a worthy cause to support financially, please consider giving to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. And if you ever have a morning to spare in Memphis, consider taking a tour of the hospital yourself. It just might be the most memorable part of your trip.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.