On June 20, 2013, Danny and Shawna Birdsall were given the worst news parents could receive: their son Drew, just nine days shy of his third birthday, had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a blood cancer that affects white blood cells’ ability to protect the body from diseases and infection. “We noticed him being very sluggish, very tired, not acting like himself,” Danny said. “We didn’t know what it was at the time. When he first got diagnosed, we had to make a decision for treatment within about a day.”
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A few months before, the Birdsalls attended a benefit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the facts the couple learned that evening about the Tennessee institution’s treatments rushed back to mind as they made a plan of action. Three days after Drew’s diagnosis, the family left their life in Huntington and boarded a plane to Memphis.
Sue Birdsall, Drew’s grandmother, said hearing the diagnosis left her and her husband feeling completely helpless, especially with the newfound distance between them and their grandson. “Our heart was there, we wanted to be there…we wanted to support St. Jude.”
Out of that mission Hope In The Hamptons was born. The fundraising event, first held at the family’s Water Mill horse farm in 2015, aims to educate the public about St. Jude and raise money for the hospital with an evening of world-class food, entertainment, auctions and more. “At first I thought of something simple, but when we contacted the St. Jude staff, they were the ones that suggested something bigger,” Sue recalled. “We have a small horse farm, and the land set-up was perfect to run the event. It all worked so smoothly.” Although the event is entering only its fourth year, the Birdsalls’ efforts have raised $1.3 million.
On July 21, The Fields on Rosko Lane in Southampton will host this colorful affair. Sue credits the event’s success to the 600 people that have attended each year and the team in St. Jude’s New York City office. “All the staff is really special, and that says a lot about St. Jude because the people that they hire are pretty incredible.” And as the event continues to grow each year in size—hence the new venue—the Birdsalls aim to find members of the Hamptons community to continue their fundraising legacy. “Creating this event has been so wonderful, but it’s getting harder and harder for my husband and I to head up ourselves, so we’re hoping to find someone that will take it on and continue to make it a success.”
St. Jude depends on fundraisers like Hope In The Hamptons to keep its doors open. The hospital doesn’t let families see a single bill for treatment and even has corporate sponsorships with the likes of Target to house families for free. “When a child of yours has cancer, all you want to do is be there for your kid without the worry of ‘how do you pay for it?’ It allows parents to just focus on what’s important,” Danny said.
Donations also help the hospital make strides in other areas. “Not only does [the money] go toward the parents and the child’s treatment, but also all the research that gets done to find the cure for all of these life-threatening illnesses,” Danny added. St. Jude is the leading research hospital for pediatric cancer in the world, tirelessly investigating how to cure cancer while working to make treatment for its patients more bearable by offering procedures such as radiation-free therapy. It also makes a point of freely sharing all discoveries with medical facilities worldwide, which has helped push the global pediatric cancer survival rate from 20 percent to more than 80 percent since Danny Thomas founded the hospital in 1962.
Drew’s form of leukemia is the poster child for what donations can accomplish. When St. Jude opened its doors, ALL had only a four percent survival rate. Thanks to groundbreaking research and cutting-edge pediatric cancer care, St. Jude’s ALL survival rate is 94 percent. That includes Drew, now two-and-a-half years cancer-free.