Success has its perks – just ask country music star Justin Moore. After years on the charts, he’s achieved the kind of fame that most only dream about, allowing him more freedom to call his own shots, such as eschewing Nashville, Austin or L.A. for the more rural surroundings of Poyen, Arkansas, his hometown.

 

And while it’s well-documented the perils of such recognition include a constant barrage of requests and a general lack of privacy, every so often an opportunity comes along that’s too good, too personal to pass up. For Moore, the Justin Moore St. Jude Golf Classic benefiting the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, is one of them.

 

“It combines two of my favorite things in the world, music and golf,” Moore said. “I’m not very good at golf, but I love playing it. Any time I’ve had the opportunity in my career to marry two things that I love together, no matter what they are, it’s always a lot of fun, especially when you can do it for such a great cause.”

 

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital provides world-class care to children like Mikayla regardless of a family’s ability to pay. (Photo Provided)

 

Scheduled for April 30 to May 1 in Little Rock, the third-year event has become one of the hottest charity tickets in town. Golf team slots have been sold out for months and with it, access to a special acoustic concert by Moore and friends at The Hall the evening of April 30. Last year, the concert was ticketed and held at a considerably larger venue at UA Little Rock, but 2023’s event, at which Moore is scheduled to be joined by guest artists Randy Houser, Matt Stell, George Birge, Austin Michael and Tyler Kinch, is open solely to those registered to play golf.

 

“It’s fun to play an 80,000-seat stadium, but it’s also, for me, fun to play for 600 people with just me and my guitar,” Moore said to explain the change in venue. “I also write songs, so it gives me the opportunity and more leeway to talk about how the songs were written and how the albums were put together.

 

“We’ve done each with this event; we’ve done the Jack [Stephens Center], which was an arena, and we’ve also done a tent on a parking lot at Chenal Country Club. I feel like with this type of event, it kind of lends itself to the more intimate-type setting. I’m kind of excited that we’re going back to that this year.”

 

For Brad Rickett, who’s been involved with all three tourneys and is in his first year chairing the event, the exclusivity lends a special allure and has created a waiting list a mile long of people hoping a last-minute cancellation will get them in.

 

“When we were at Jack Stephens, we had a lot of people and we had a great turnout, raised a lot of money, sold all of our auction items, but were in kind of this big arena,” he said. “This year we’re going to take that whole same thing and shove it in a shoebox instead of putting it in a big moving box. The Hall is a smaller music venue, and you’ll get that intimacy with Justin being up on stage, everybody being close-knit. I really think this year’s is going to be the best event ever, for that reason.”

 

Rickett brings one of the more diverse backgrounds to the role of chairman of the organizing committee. A former touring musician with formal training in anesthesia, he worked in the health care field for more than 25 years. The entrepreneur is also co-owner of Rock Star Passes, which produces the various credential badges worn around the neck at music and sporting events, of which Moore is a client. A friendship blossomed, and when the golf tourney idea came about, Rickett signed on.

 

“We work on this year-round,” he said. “It’s not like, ‘OK Justin’s event is in April so let’s start March 1.’ It’s a year-round deal. And the one thing I’ll say about the executive board and all our committees on Justin’s event: they are all top-notch people that are from right here locally and right here in Arkansas that give 110 percent.

 

“It’s a hard job to go out and ask somebody, ‘Will you donate a guitar signed by Chris Stapleton?’ or ‘Will you donate a weekend to the Razorback football game?’ That’s a very, very hard thing. So, I give all the credit in the world to our committee.”

 

Whatever mojo the committee is conjuring it’s working; in its first two years the event has raised a combined $667,000 and with proceeds from this year’s event, looks to break the $1 million mark according to Mariangeles Grear, development specialist, Delta Area for ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

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Mariangeles Grear, who dreamed up an Arkansas golf fundraiser, is a former patient of St. Jude’s. (Photo Provided)

 

Grear, who as a teenage leukemia patient came to St. Jude’s from her native South America, credits the hospital with saving her life.

 

“I was a dead case in Venezuela,” she said. “I was 13, and I had AML leukemia. You do not see a lot of AML survivors because it is one of the toughest ones. When I had leukemia back in 2000, I had a 2 percent survival rate.

Mariangeles Grear, who dreamed up an Arkansas golf fundraiser, is a former patient of St. Jude’s. (Photo Provided)

 

“They told my parents I had a week left, and I needed an immediate bone marrow transplant that was impossible back home. When I came to St. Jude, they did everything that they could and I was walking out of the door cancer-free six months later.”

 

Given her background, it’s no surprise how doggedly successful she is at raising money for the hospital, or that once she got an idea in her head for a Little Rock fundraiser that she would find some way to make it a marquee event.

 

“This used to be a walk that I turned into a golf tournament,” she said. “The first year, 2018, it was the Little Rock St. Jude Classic. We raised about $30,000 under a tornado watch the night of the event. There were 50 people in the room.

 

“[Justin] played golf the first year, and I was like, ‘I don’t want anybody to treat him differently, I don’t want anybody to make a big deal that he’s Justin Moore. I just want him to feel at home.’ He had such a great time that when I had a conversation with him afterward I was like, ‘Justin, what do you think about supporting a cause and putting your name to it?’ He goes, ‘Call my manager on Monday.’”

 

Moore said, “Country music, as a community, has always had a great relationship with St. Jude, and it started with the band Alabama years ago, decades ago actually. I had the opportunity to go there and tour the hospital and speak with patients and their families. When I first went there, I had the preconceived notion that it was going to be sad. I’m a father, and you’re like, ‘Man this place has got to be just downtrodden,’ and it’s quite the opposite. When you go there it’s uplifting.”

 

Also in attendance for that first golf event was Ty Warren, now northwest regional president for Cadence Bank in Little Rock. Warren had signed up his then-employer Bancorp South as a sponsor for the event, the easiest donation the organization ever got.

 

“They came to see me, would I be a sponsor, and I said, ‘I think we probably would be interested in doing something,’” he said with a soft chuckle. “We ended up doing a $5,000 sponsorship, and that was the largest at that time that they had, and which was a lot for us at our bank. And the guy is going through everything, trying to explain to me the St. Jude story, and I just said, ‘I have a picture in my office of my son with a bald head when he was in the middle of it.’ I showed him that, and the guy started laughing and said, ‘Oh, God.’”

 

In 2004, Warren’s 6-year-old son, Matt, was diagnosed with leukemia and referred to St. Jude from another hospital. Three years of treatment followed, during which time he and his wife went through the physical and emotional torment of watching their child battle the disease. To this day, he can’t imagine how the family could have gone through it without the support of the hospital.

 

“When Matt was 6, he had a 7-year-old brother and a 9-year-old sister,” Warren said. “We were immersed because it affects your whole family, this treatment program where we went once a week for three years. Then oftentimes he would get sick, and we’d be there weeks on end until he could get well enough to go home.

 

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital provides world-class care to children like Ryleigh regardless of a family’s ability to pay. (Photo Provided)

 

“We just found out what a wonderful place it is. We reaped the benefit of all that’s been researched and done at St. Jude. Not only did they take care of him, but they fed us three meals a day and vouchers for snacks. We had two other small kids who were missing their mom and dad, so they had child life specialists who actually included them, worked with them. They just embraced our whole family.”

 

Today, Matt is 25, married and about to graduate from Tulane Law School. He goes for checkups every five years but, by all standards he is cancer-free. Yet the memory of the experience is something the family has never put entirely behind them, which is why Warren wrote that check and why he was the chairman for the first two golf events rebranded under Justin Moore’s name.

 

“Let me take you back to Matt’s first night there, which was March 17, 2004,” he said. “When we landed there, it was like midnight, and the doors came open. He was really, really sick at this point, white blood count, I think, was 500-and-some-thousand. We went through those hospital doors, and I remember seeing five or six people converge, mostly on him, but then on my wife and myself. He was in intensive care, and I remember them pulling me aside and a lady came to me and said, ‘Mr. Warren, I just want you to understand I’ve got some paperwork here for you to sign. Just sign here.’ At that point I would have signed anything.

 

“She said, ‘I’ll tell you what you’re signing. It says if you have insurance, we’re going to bill your insurance. Whatever your insurance doesn’t pay, we pay. And if you don’t have insurance, we pay. We want you to think about one thing, and one thing only, and that’s your son and letting us get him well.’ You don’t ever forget those conversations.

 

“We quickly came to realize there’s no place like it. They sit down and talk with you when you have questions, and they’re not trying to get past you to the next person. So, St. Jude is definitely something I’m real passionate about.”

 

Success stories such as Warren’s and Grear’s notwithstanding, organizers understood the potential friction that could arise over the golf event. With so many worthy causes in Arkansas, why send money to Memphis when it could go to in-state health systems?

 

“There’s a big misunderstanding, I believe, that I’m supporting St. Jude but I have a children’s hospital here. What is the deal?” Rickett said.  “What I learned is that in many cases, patients in our local hospitals get to a point and their doctors here say, ‘I think we need to refer you on to St. Jude because they have the extensive research that we can’t offer here.’

 

“I see local hospitals benefitting, because I’ve had patients locally that have said, ‘Oh yeah, I was treated here but then had to go to St. Jude in Memphis. I got taken care of, and now I’m back here.’ I don’t see it as a competition; I see it as parallel and complementary to each other along the way.”

 

Warren said, “Part of the challenge is getting the message out that St. Jude shares their research freely with hospitals across the world. It partners with hospitals both in helping them with complicated cases as a resource if they need it, but they also have been largely responsible for the protocols that are used, and they share them freely.

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Justin Moore (middle right) performs with friends at the 2022 event. This year’s entrants-only concert will be held at The Hall in Little Rock. (Photo Provided)

 

“When you give a dollar to St. Jude you’re actually helping, maybe indirectly if you want to consider it that way, the children who are being treated for cancer at Arkansas Children’s Hospital or anywhere.”

 

For Moore, whose music has always derived its power from simplicity of message, the best reasons to support the hospital’s work are elemental.

 

“I have three daughters, ages 13, 11 and 8, and I have a little boy who’s 5,” he said. “Over the years I’ve met families on the road that have spent time at St. Jude, some whose kids were OK and some not, and I’ve become close to those families. As I’ve learned more and more about all the great work that they do, as a parent, it became an even more special place.

 

 

“Y’know, I’m also a Christian, and I believe to whom much is given, much is required. I try to live by that. I’ve been so fortunate to have the success that I’ve had that it’s something that, along with my wife, I’m trying to impress upon our children. If you’ve been fortunate enough to be given things and afforded opportunities, you need to pay it forward. I think it says a lot how Central Arkansas has supported this event so far, and it’s another reason why I’m so proud to be from this state.”

 

To learn more about the work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital or to make a donation, please visit stjude.org.

 

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