Kix Brooks, a supporter of Children’s Hospital for more than 20 years, is one of hundreds of artists and athletes who have given their time and financial support. Photo by Micah Kandros.

Champions for Children

Published on June 20th, 2017 by Diana Duren.

Legendary country music artist Kix Brooks, of the duo Brooks and Dunn, was boating on Center Hill Lake near Smithville, Tennessee, for summer vacation a decade ago when his teenage son, Eric, face planted while wakeboarding. Brooks worried when Eric didn’t move.

“I went to pick him up (out of the water) and I realized something was terribly wrong. He had lost his ability to speak, and I could tell by the look on his face he was really scared. He didn’t know what was happening,” Brooks said.

After driving Eric on the boat to where Brooks could call for help, a LifeFlight helicopter descended on the lake area and transported his son to Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Brooks drove more than an hour with his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Molly, to Nashville. Brooks suspected Eric, who was only weeks away from starting his freshman year at Vanderbilt University, had suffered a stroke. And indeed he had, along with a concussion.

Kix Brooks and son, Eric Brooks

“I didn’t even know if I was going to see my son alive again,” he recalled. “The whole thing was really frightening. When I got there, he was already receiving the best of care and a diagnosis had been made, tests were being done. Thanks to everyone who is part of this great facility, my son is now 100 percent, and even made straight As by the end of his first semester at Vanderbilt.”

Brooks, a longtime vocal advocate for Children’s Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, shared his personal story recently as he spoke about what an integral part of his life Children’s Hospital has been for more than 20 years.

Brooks represents a steadfast and ever-growing class of champions for pediatric health care from Nashville’s music, entertainment and sports industries. In fact, music and health care are two of the city’s largest industries. Children’s Hospital and Music Row grew up in the same “neighborhood” over the decades with the hallmark country music labels and recording studios and Children’s Hospital separated by only blocks.

“Anyone who makes a trip down to Children’s Hospital to witness the passion and the good will that happens there becomes committed. The (hospital) sells itself,” said Brooks, a member of the Children’s Hospital Advisory Board and the committee for the Growing to New Heights Campaign, which supports the hospital’s current four-floor expansion.

Hundreds of artists along with record labels and athletes have made transformational gifts—financial and generous amounts of time—to Children’s Hospital, both before and after the freestanding hospital opened in 2004. Along the way, the list of artists and athletes to provide financial support to the hospital, visit and/or perform has included, to name a few: Rascal Flatts, Dierks Bentley, Brooks & Dunn, Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry, Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Darius Rucker, Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Ryan Seacrest, Wade Hayes, Martina McBride, Kellie Pickler, Wynonna Judd, Scott Hamilton, Reba McEntire, Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley Cyrus, Brad Paisley, Jeff Gordon, the Nashville Predators and many more.

“Much of the nation has come to know Nashville as the new ‘It’ city and the heart of country music, which it is. But what people may not know, is that there is a behind-the-scenes altruistic spirit deeply rooted in the artists, entertainers and athletes who call Nashville home. We are very fortunate that Children’s Hospital has been a gracious recipient of that support,” said John W. Brock III, Senior Vice President of Pediatric Surgical Services, Surgeon-in-chief and Monroe Carell Jr.

“It’s tremendous to have such a caring group of people who go out of their way to give back in very thoughtful ways and who help not only provide resources to expand the hospital and its programs, but also spend time to put a smile on a child’s face with a visit or a song. We look forward to the many more opportunities to bring together the power of health and music to heal.”

An introduction

Frequently, artists first learn about Children’s Hospital and its programs from friends or fellow artists who are already passionate supporters of the facility.

The late Donna Hilley, a top music industry publishing executive and former member of the Children’s Hospital Advisory Board, introduced Brooks to Children’s Hospital and “suggested” he and Ronnie Dunn donate all the money from their first-ever sell out concert at Starwood Amphitheater in 1993. Brooks knew nothing at the time about the hospital.

“I told her I would go down and check out the hospital, and I did,” he said. “I learned at that point, with one visit, firsthand, what she was talking about and why it was so important to her. Children’s Hospital has stepped up to be a premier children’s hospital and not just in Nashville but in a huge area. I think as artists are becoming more educated—and people in the music business and the business community in general are more aware—that this hospital is more important now than ever, that it takes our support and us coming together to continue taking care of children in a much larger region.”

There from the start

Like Kix Brooks, there is a tenured class of champions who very quietly, and often out of the spotlight, advocate for Children’s Hospital.

During one of the many artist visits with patients at Children’s Hospital, Rascal Flatts pose with patient José Gonzalez and his family after performing. Photo by John Russell.

Grammy award-winning country music group Rascal Flatts, composed of Jay DeMarcus, Gary LeVox and Joe Don Rooney, has been supporting Children’s Hospital for more than a decade.

“We’re very honored and humbled to get to help out Children’s Hospital. It’s so very near and dear to our hearts,” said Rooney. “Of all the sad stories we hear, there are so many positive and uplifting stories. It’s amazing to witness and to be a part of. In many ways, we’re just getting started.”

Rascal Flatts performs for Children’s Hospital patients every year, and has done so for the past 12 years. They also do room-to-room visits to meet patients and families unable to make it downstairs for the performance.

“Going to the hospital is very important to us. We want to visit with every child and young adult we can, and shake the hands of the doctors, nurses and staff. We truly care and want to help the hospital grow.”

The group has helped raise millions of dollars for the hospital. In 2010, The Rascal Flatts Surgery Center, which houses the surgical programs and a state-of-the-art interventional radiology suite, was named in recognition of the trio’s long-standing involvement. Each year, the Flatts visit Children’s Hospital, host fundraising events and donate concert tour revenues.

Giving back to Children’s Hospital runs in the Flatts’ extended family. Allison DeMarcus, wife of bassist/vocalist Jay DeMarcus, is intimately involved with helping patients and families. She serves on the Children’s Hospital Advisory Board, currently as chair, and is an active supporter of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals® and Friends of Children’s Hospital through her role as co-executive director of the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant. Both CMN and Friends efforts benefit Children’s Hospital.

Allison has coordinated patient meet-and-greet visits from Miss Tennessee and Miss America.

“There was a little girl who came down the hall in her Elsa nightgown (from Disney’s “Frozen”) and was having chemo but wanted to come down to meet Miss America,” Allison recalls. “She got to put the Miss America crown on her head and get excited and not think about everything else for a while. It was awesome to see her have that moment and that escape from her situation.”

Members of Lady Antebellum, from left, Dave Haywood, Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley, pose with 3-year-old Makenna Bilbrey and her parents, Ronda and Jeff, during a visit to Children’s Hospital. Photo by Anne Rayner.

Another country music trio, Lady Antebellum, early in their career, attended a Rascal Flatts concert where they watched an inspiring tribute video to Children’s Hospital. It was their introduction to the pediatric facility, its programs and its families. As Lady Antebellum gained recognition for its music, the group made plans to give back to the community.

The Lady A members—Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley—wanted to use their platform for positive influence. They visited several organizations they now support, including Children’s Hospital, and created a nonprofit called LadyAID.

“You walk into these rooms and—even if (the kids) have no idea who you are— sing a song or a chorus or ask a 5-year-old about their day or what movies they like, and you realize how much that lights up their day,” Haywood recalls.

Haywood, speaking on behalf of Lady A, says it’s important to the group to support the teams caring for the children as well.

“It’s a phenomenal hospital and it needs to continue to have great support from anyone and everyone, entertainment or not. There are all sorts of great people who can make a difference and can help support. We’re happy to be included in that list,” he said.

Industry-wide support

Besides Kix Brooks, several top music industry executives serve on the Children’s Hospital Advisory Board, including Rod Essig of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), Clarence Spalding of Maverick and Sarah Trahern of the Country Music Association (CMA).

Also, many music industry supporters of VUMC have held key positions on the CMA, Academy of Country Music Association (ACM) and Country Music Hall of Fame boards. Among them are Scott Borchetta of Big Machine Label Group, Rob Beckham of WME, Frank Bumstead of FBMM, Joe Galante of Galante Entertainment, Randy Goodman of Sony Music, Mike Curb of Curb Records, Troy Vollhoffer of PGP, Colin Reed of Ryman Hospitality and Pete Fisher of the ACMs.

The chief executive officer of the CMA, Sarah Trahern, emphasizes the longstanding relationship between the association and VUMC. Trahern notes that VUMC provides CMA members and their families with health care, including specialized services like the Vanderbilt Voice Center and the Musicians’ Hearing Center, both part of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center. CMA gives generously to support VUMC and Children’s Hospital with countless fundraisers, concerts, philanthropic events and direct financial contributions. Many of the artists visit Children’s Hospital to provide the healing power of music.

“We’re very fortunate in our business that the families of people in the music industry have a great facility right down the street to take care of them. The quality care that these kids are getting can’t be replicated,” said Trahern. “Any time the artists have come out and interacted with the patients and the parents, everyone seems grateful for our support.”

The CMA and its members have donated $3 million to the Children’s Hospital’s current four-floor expansion—an idea that Kix Brooks and Clarence Spalding presented to the CMA Board. Along with Brooks, Spalding also is a member of the Growing to New Heights Campaign committee to support the current expansion at Children’s Hospital.

A new generation of support

Artists like Kix Brooks and Rascal Flatts have also laid the foundation for a new generation of musicians and singers to build upon.

Country music duo Maddie (left) and Tae dance with patient Jurnee Scantling during a visit to Children’s Hospital. Photo by John Russell.

Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye, who make up the duo Maddie & Tae, joke that their first big gig was the butterfly stage at Children’s Hospital. Five years ago when they were 16 and starting out in the music industry, they played some of the songs they were writing for patients and families on the performance stage area of the second floor, the hub of the hospital near the food court.

“We had so much fun. The best part of it was that all the kids had an instrument to play along with us. It was like we were all putting on a concert together. It was a really uplifting experience and we were really glad to start our journey that way with the Children’s Hospital,” said Maddie Marlow.

“We feel very blessed that we get to be in a situation to bring a positive message to these kids and make them smile,” added Tae Dye.

Up-and-comers like Maddie & Tae also have a new avenue for an introduction to Children’s Hospital—Seacrest Studios, a state-of-the-art multimedia broadcast studio that opened in March 2016. The opening ribbon-cutting ceremony took place with help from radio and television host and producer Ryan Seacrest, along with his family and surprise guest Taylor Swift. The studio marked the 10th studio that the Ryan Seacrest Foundation (RSF) has opened inside a pediatric hospital. The Academy of Country Music, a longtime partner of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, is also one of Seacrest Studios’ partners.

“Our foundation has always chosen hospitals to partner with that believe a strong quality of care goes hand-in-hand with providing programs that improve a patient’s quality of life during treatment. We chose Children’s Hospital as one of our locations because not only do they share these same sentiments, but they truly embrace music therapy and its power to help heal,” said Meredith Seacrest, who is Ryan’s sister and executive director/COO of RSF.

Ryan Seacrest cut the ribbon at the opening of Seacrest Studios at Children’s Hospital. Helping him are his family, surprise guest Taylor Swift, and patients, from left, Ilana Hanai, Gigi Pasley and Dalton Waggoner. Photo by Joe Howell.

Because of the hospital’s unique location in Music City, a lot of talent has performed and visited over the years. Seacrest Studios, which celebrated its first birthday in March, has ushered in even more talent than before.

“We have been extremely touched by the Nashville community embracing our new studio with such warmth and excitement. We are always working to send artists and special guests to all of our studios, but are moved by the added support we have received from the existing relationships the
hospital has within the music industry,” said Seacrest.

Beyond the music

Music businesses and artists aren’t the only well-known group supporting Children’s Hospital. Over the past seven years combined, the Nashville Predators hockey organization has donated more than $1 million to the hospital and its programs.

The team’s 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund raises awareness for cancer research and allows the hospital’s patients and families to get special “Smashville” hockey game experiences. Two nights a year during the regular season, the Predators also host Hockey Fights Cancer night to raise money for the Fund.

Equally important to the team and its players are the multiple visits throughout the year—even when they’re preparing for a tremendous playoff run—to spend time with patients and families. Players’ room-to-room visits bring smiles and tears of joy. Goalie Pekka Rinne is a fan favorite at the hospital.

Members of the Nashville Predators hockey team made holiday cards with
patients in December. Children’s Hospital patient Julianna Wooldridge poses with, from left, mascot Gnash, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, Pekka Rinne, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban. Photo by John Russell.

“It was a big eye opener for me,” Rinne said of his early visits to Children’s Hospital. He said children and families are always so happy to meet the players and to have the distraction from whatever health battle they are facing. “The impact you can have on kids and their families—that really made me think.”

As part of the 365 Fund, Rinne and the Predators purchased a suite at Bridgestone Arena that accommodates 32 children and families from Children’s Hospital for all Predators home games. A night at the suite includes food and beverages, Xbox games, 365 Fund T-shirts and postgame meet and greets.

“The partnership has grown over the years, and when you have a Hockey Fights Cancer Night, it helps make a big impact,” Rinne said. “For the players, it’s nice to be a part of it and it gives us a different perspective; it makes you think how many people are impacted and how fortunate you are.”

– by Christina Echegaray