A Place of Hope

A Place of Hope

Daisy Fuentes finds new hope during a visit to St. Jude Children's Hospital.

The letter came in a stack of mail. There was a photo included, a picture of a teenage girl with sparkling eyes, shiny hair and a confident smile. I didn’t recognize her. Probably someone who wanted advice on how to get into modeling or television. She was certainly beautiful enough to be a model.

Then I saw the name at the end of the letter: Jessica. And I knew immediately who she was.

“We met at St. Jude five years ago,” she wrote.

Not that I could have ever forgotten that wonderful place that had made such a difference to both of us.

Actress Marlo Thomas was the one who first got me involved. She asked if I would come to a fund-raiser in Los Angeles for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“Sure,” I said. I’d heard about St. Jude and the good work the doctors and nurses and the rest of the staff there did for children with catastrophic diseases, and I was glad to help in my own small way.

I’d heard the story behind the hospital too, how when Marlo’s father, actor Danny Thomas, was struggling to make it in the entertainment business he promised God that if success ever came his way he’d do something for the weakest of the weak, the poorest of the poor, children with diseases that seemed impossible to cure.

Like Marlo, I’d grown up Catholic and I understood why St. Jude’s name was invoked. My mother made sure faith in God was a part of our lives, and we kids were taught to remember St. Jude in our prayers at those times when there didn’t seem to be any hope, because he was the patron saint of lost causes.

Success came for Danny Thomas—Make Room for Daddy was one of the most popular TV shows of the fifties. He never forgot his promise, and started the Memphis-based hospital that has become a center for pediatric research and care, treating children regardless of whether their families can afford it. A place of hope.

The L.A. fund-raiser was a big success. That was that, I thought. But Marlo had another request—one that sounded a lot more daunting. “Come to the hospital and meet the kids,” she said. “You’ll love them and they’ll love you.”

“I don’t know,” I said hesitantly. I knew fashion, beauty, fitness and music, not medicine. Not what these desperately ill children needed. What could I really do for them?

Marlo must have heard the doubt in my voice because she said, “There’s a lot you can do to help the kids. You’ll see. Talking to them, just being with them, makes a big difference.”

Just being with them. Those words clicked with me. I remembered just being with someone who was very sick, whose illness shook my world—my mom, when she had breast cancer.

My parents were very traditional and my mom was the glue in the family, the one who took care of all of us and kept everything together. I was born in Cuba. When I was three our family moved to Spain. Like most women in Spain back then, Mom didn’t work outside the home.

My little sister and I were so blessed to have her close at hand, playing with us, reading to us, teaching us how to cook Cuban comfort food like picadillo (still one of my favorites). Now I realize my parents were struggling financially, but I remember it as a happy time. We did a lot with very little. We were always out and about, exploring Madrid, having picnics, walking around the beautiful squares, or plazas, that the city is known for.

When I was eight we moved to New Jersey. All at once I was the new kid, the odd one out. There were some Latino kids in school but they couldn’t understand my Castilian Spanish accent. They made fun of me for having a lisp when really I was pronouncing z’s, like in the word zapatos (shoes), with a Castilian “th” sound. I quickly toned down my accent to fit in.