The touching stories on the other end of the line: A look at the

The touching stories on the other end of the line: A look at the behind-the-scenes heroes of the St. Jude Telethon.

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PEORIA, Ill. (WEEK) -


Most people are familiar with the st. Jude telethon. Each year the annual event boasts familiar faces from here at the station as well as throughout the community. But., much of the telethon's success actually relies on the VIPs behind the scenes. A VIP is an individual who commits to raising $1,000 for the kids of St. Jude. And in many cases, they have a personal connection that inspires them.

As an accountant., it's no surprise James Ingold is a numbers guy. So it's fitting that when it comes to fundraising for St. Jude, his numbers really stand out.

"In the last couple years we've hit $100,000," he admits in a simple way that seems modest when you realize that's $100,000 a year, raised by one man, who humbly gives all the credit to generous family, friends and clients. 

Ingold has been working the phones as a VIP since 2004, although he was first inspired as a college kid working at the Crestwood Country Club where they hosted the first St. Jude golf outing.

"I remember it was a really hot day, and my boss made me wear a sport coat, and I was in the parking lot and Jim Maloof walks up and told me all about St. Jude in like five minutes."

Instantly sold, Ingold played in the golf tournament every year, until one day a friend's 7 year old son, Grant, was diagnosed with cancer.

"It was tax season. I was in the office at 5 A.M. and he called me and told me the news," he recalls. "It was a very, very rare form of cancer, very rare. It was in his spinal fluid."

Ingold ended up traveling with Grant and his family to Memphis for treatment, which is where he got to see firsthand how St. Jude brings hope and comfort to patients and their families.

"The parents looked unbelievably at peace and the patients? The doctors treat them like they're the most important thing in the world right then."

Impressed and determined to help, Ingold starting raising money, growing his totals each year, until once again it became personal as his wife was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2012.

Seeing what she went through, the cancer treatments and radiation and chemotherapy. We sat down one night and we were like, 'if it's this bad for an adult, what must it be like for a kid?'"

And while Ingold's wife and Grant, now 21, are both cancer-free, he remains every bit as committed.

"There's nothing more than seeing a St. Jude kid getting married, having a family. That's when I know we've done what we were supposed to do," he shares with tears in his eyes.

It's a sentiment shared by another long-time VIP, Dr. John Taraska, who's sadly seen St. Jude patients who didn't make it.

"There was a of 15-year-old boy. I went up to play cards with him in the clinic one night, and the next day I came back and said, 'Where's Brian?' And they said, 'Oh, he died last night.' So, I just went to my office and cried for about an hour," Taraska recalls. 

Still, over the years he's seen incredible advancements thanks to research funded by telethon dollars.

"When I graduated medical school in 1963 only 3% of children lived with leukemia. Now we're talking about a 90% cure rate," he says with pride, attributing much of that success to St. Jude and the research done there. Of course, Taraska had a hand in bringing some of St. Jude here to Peoria, co-founding the St. Jude Midwest Affiliate Clinic in Peoria in 1972. Taraska and another doctor traveled to Memphis and convinced the Medical Director to open up a location here, with Actor and St. Jude founder Danny Thomas' blessing. Over the years Dr. Taraska not only worked on the front lines in that clinic, he 's manned the phones at every telethon since it started 40 years ago, often joined by his wife, Marie. As for why he does it year after year?
 
"You just think, 'Anything I can do to help these beautiful, beautiful children, I will do.' And I have five children of my own, and you can relate no matter what you do to your own children."

It's the compassion of those affiliated with St. Jude that's helped ease the burden felt by Carolyn Alaksiewicz when her son David was diagnosed, shortly before his fifth birthday.

"He was getting real cranky. Basically we noticed he was almost, his complexion was almost white. When I took him to the doctor he took one look at him and said, "You're going to St. Jude.'" she shares.

After 2 months in Memphis, David was in remission and was able to return home with his parents and four older brothers. Although, as it turned out, he was on borrowed time.

"He relapsed after almost 2 years, and then he relapsed really quickly after that one, and they had nothing left to give him," she shares with the pain of something that happened more than 34 years ago still fresh in her eyes.

Still, despite his family's loss, they continued to support St. Jude, including his brother John who did the St. Jude run for 25 years, starting when David was first diagnosed.

"He was down in Memphis when John did the first run, and he was so proud because John carried him on his shoulders through the hospital and he was going around, you know, 'this is my big brother!'" she recalls, choking back a sob. 

Although bittersweet, these are memories Carolyn cherishes and shares as she helps round up other VIP's to answer the phones each year, all with the goal of saving someone else's "David."

"I see the good, and so I just want to continue that."

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