Suzan Thames, honorary chairman of the Friends board, Dr. Owen B. Evans, center, chair emeritus of pediatrics, and Sara Ray, Friends board chair, visit with patients, from left, Mary Morgan Koskovich, Braylen Roberts and Molly Schade. | Image: FOCH

Special to Find It In Fondren (Friends of Children’s Hospital/UMMC)

When Dr. Owen “Bev” Evans found out he would become chairman of the pediatrics department at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, he negotiated for just three things – the department’s first computer, its first printer to go with it and permission to create a Friends of Children’s Hospital fundraising group.

The computer and printer are long gone. But Friends of Children’s Hospital just celebrated its 25th birthday.

Sara Ray, chairman of the Friends board, said the board members who have served over the years are what made this milestone possible. As a community leader, Ray has worked with many charitable organizations.  But, she says, this board of directors is truly unique.

“We really are a working board, because we have so few employees,” she said. “Friends would not have become the organization it is today without the strength of the board members. They are hands-on and involved in every aspect of the organization.  And, most importantly, the interests of the patients and families of Batson Children’s Hospital are the guiding force behind their efforts and decisions.”

The idea for Friends hatched during Evans’ time as assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, where Evans was a pediatric neurologist, reaped the benefits of an active Friends group that supported many programs at the time he said, including his own salary.

But salary support wasn’t what Evans wanted from these Friends. At the top of his wish list was a new children’s hospital.

The existing building, completed in 1968, was not family friendly, with only one shower on each floor, two patient rooms sharing a single toilet with no locks on the doors, and windows between adjacent rooms. In short, the building lacked adequate space and privacy.

So Evans told Dr. Norman C. Nelson, then vice chancellor for health affairs, that he wanted to build a new children’s hospital. Creating Friends of Children’s Hospital was the first step in that direction.

“There’s not a single children’s hospital in this country that can support itself without community help,” Evans said. “Children cost more to take care of in a hospital. When you are in the hospital, you’ll read a book or watch TV and eat your meal and put the tray over there. A child doesn’t do that. Food’s on the floor, someone has to change them, they don’t want to get their blood drawn. It takes a lot more people.”

Nelson agreed to build four floors of a new children’s hospital if fundraising could fund the fifth. Evans got to work and his first order of business was recruiting Suzan Thames to be president of the Friends’ board.

Thames, who worked as an audiologist, was also a member of the Junior League of Jackson. In the latter role, she had played a major role in fundraising and planning the Mississippi Children’s Cancer Clinic. At the time, it was the largest signature fundraising project that any Junior League in the country had ever completed.

Evans believed Thames’ enthusiasm and connections would be crucial to getting Friends going. As it turned out, Evans’ timing was not that great and initially, Thames was reluctant.

“It was the night we broke ground on the cancer clinic when he asked me. We had worked so hard raising the money,” said Thames.

She was exhausted, but lucky for Evans, she couldn’t refuse.

When one of Thames’ daughters was young, she suffered from debilitating headaches and no one could figure out what was wrong. They finally landed in Evans’ exam room, where he diagnosed her with a rare condition and treated her immediately.

“I would’ve agreed to jump off the roof of the Children’s Hospital,” Thames said. “I knew I had to help this special hospital and these special children and their families in any way that I could.”

She called him the next day to accept.

When Friends was created, there were a few community-support groups that were fundraising for the hospital piecemeal. Evans’ goal was to “get the friends together.”

“We didn’t want to be competing about fundraising. We wanted everyone to be aware of what everyone else was doing.”

In the spring of 1989, representatives from those groups and many others in the Jackson area were invited to a meeting in the old nursing auditorium on the Medical Center’s campus. Evans pitched his idea for Friends and recalls it being well-received.

Later that fall, 33 people attended Friends’ first general membership meeting, held at Thames’ house. She remembers being “bowled over” that so many people showed up.

The treasurer’s report from that meeting listed cash on hand from membership dues, gifts and interest as $3,025.

That money was spent launching Friends’ first major fundraising initiative in December 1989, Light-A-Light. Donors honor someone by “lighting-a-light” on Batson’s Christmas tree for $10 or lighting an Eternal Light on the Eternal Light tree for $250. It became an annual event and is the longest-running project for Friends.

As its first year drew to a close, Friends had more than two hundred members and a $44,000 budget. They designated $3,000 to start a new children’s hospital building fund.

At this point, building a new hospital was still a distant goal. Most of the money Friends raised was spent making the hospital more child and family friendly – coffee for each patient floor, decorating the lobby for the holidays and supporting the new Child Life program.

“We were all about helping the children and their families. We were not yet into construction. We knew long-range that would be a goal, but these children desperately needed so much assistance,” Thames said. “It was a desperate need for children who were sick to have a play environment, for their mothers to be able to get a cup of coffee, for their fathers to be able to make a phone call.”

Serving as an important link between the hospital and the public, Friends spent the next few years building a support base – simultaneously raising money for and increasing awareness towards the hospital.

“The more people got involved, the more people that joined our board, the more people who saw the potential and what this could be, the more people wanted to become involved in it,” Thames said.

When plans for a new children’s hospital came into focus in 1994, Friends was able to pledge $175,000 – a sum that took them 5 years to raise and a far cry from the $3,000 they had started the building fund with. The rest of the $1.2 million needed to complete the 5th floor of the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children came from the Children’s Miracle Network and other groups raising money at the time.

The Batson hospital was the first of many building projects Friends would support.

No sooner had Batson opened its doors in 1997 than Evans started talking about the surgery center, which now comprises the 6th and 7th floors of the hospital.

Driven by successful new signature fundraising events such as the Enchanted Evening Under the Stars gala in 1999 and the MiracleHome Giveaway in 2003, Friends pledged $1.7 million for the project.

“That’s when they really came through,” Evans noted. “They realized they could make a difference. There were a lot of lean years, but the board stuck together because people believed it was going to work and it was worthy.”

With newfound confidence in their ability, the group gained momentum quickly.

About the time the surgical suite opened in 2004, Sara Ray, current chairman of the board, joined Friends.

A former cardiac surgery nurse, Ray had been active in several community organizations, but quickly found her niche on the Friends board.

In her first year, she became president-elect and the following year, president. She has never looked back.

She and her husband Bill, president and CEO of BankPlus, were the impetus behind a July 2004 “Christmas in July” visit from football legends Archie and Eli Manning to Batson.  That visit morphed into a five-year commitment to the hugely successful, “An Evening with the Mannings presented by BankPlus.” The event raised $3 million to fund Friends’ next building project – construction of the Eli Manning Children’s Clinics, completed in 2009.

Once the clinics were completed, Friends quickly moved on to another project, the renovation and expansion of the children’s emergency room, committing another $1.7 million.

But before that project began, Thames, who had shepherded Friends for the last 20 years as chairman of the board, decided it was time to step down.

She knew Ray was the one person who could successfully take the reins.

“I had her over to my house one day with this big notebook in my hands and I said, ‘Sara, I’ve got to leave this in the most capable hands I can even imagine.’ And she looked at me and said, “I don’t think I need it right this minute.’

Ray shadowed Thames for two years before taking over as chairman in 2010. Ray never did get the notebook to guide her, but Thames laughed that she just calls instead.

The momentum that began with that $1.7 million pledge for the surgical suite in 2004 has put Friends’ donations in the $15 million range in just the last ten years.

“They’ve created a snowball effect, attracting others to the cause of helping children,” said Dr. James E. Keeton, former UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs, who also worked with Friends in his role as a pediatric urologist.

“Suzan Thames and Sara Ray are people you don’t say ‘no’ to, because they’re so passionate about the Children’s Hospital.  That’s what I call inspirational leadership.”

Rob Armour, who serves as current president of the board, said Friends’ success in spite of an economic recession is because “helping sick children is an undeniably important cause that people gravitate towards.”

“I think it has to do with the culture in our state,” he said. “Regardless of our economic status, Mississippians consistently lead the nation in charitable giving.  And we are very thankful for all of this because the number of children being treated at Batson has grown tremendously in the last few years.”

And with growing patient volumes came a growing list of needs. While building projects are always on the horizon, Friends has managed to help with many smaller needs as well. They’ve helped fund four endowed pediatric chairs, an entertainment system for patient rooms, reading programs for the school-aged patients, the Child Life program, patient needs accounts and dozens of smaller programs and projects that keep them squarely within their original mission of making the hospital as child and family friendly as it can be.

“I always tell people we’re the gravy,” Ray said. “It’s about enhancing the lives of the children and their families when they’re here in this hospital going through something I can’t even imagine. It’s about putting a smile on their faces.”