Emily Tickle Thomas reminds us of the ripple effect created by a small gesture of kindness. She is a cancer survivor who built The Cancer Card Xchange, a nonprofit organization that collects monetary and gift card donations and then distributes the cards to verified cancer patients — simply to brighten their days. It all started a few years ago when Emily learned that about $41 billion worth of gift cards had gone unclaimed since 2005, and she remembered that one of the brightest moments during her initial treatment for cancer was a night out with her husband — compliments of a gift card given to them by friends. Those two realizations formed the idea for the card exchange. The Cancer Card Xchange is celebrating its three-year anniversary on June 23. Join us in celebrating Emily as our FACE of the South today!
Are you a Southern girl through and through?
I was born in Boone, NC, and most of my extended family still lives in North Carolina. We moved to Tupelo, MS, when I was 5. I graduated from Ole Miss before moving to Memphis in 1993. Yes, Southern through and through. I cannot imagine living or raising our four sons anywhere else. The people, the food — no other place like it.
How did your upbringing influence the strong connection you have to community?
I learned from my parents that relationships with family and friends are the most important thing. Showing up is a big part of that. My mom wasn’t afraid of anything, and she was upfront and direct. I like to think I inherited fearlessness from her. My daddy is the epitome of commitment and loyalty. With that combination, I didn’t really know any differently growing up. I think those things transfer over into all aspects of my life — family, friends, work.
Describe your family and how you balance time with them with your work and outside interests.
My husband, Joel, and I have four sons. Gray is almost 15, Eli is 13, Reed is 8 and Webb is 6. It is a busy, fun, crazy life. The boys go to three different public schools in Collierville, TN. Joel is CFO for Montgomery Martin Contractors in Memphis. We have a lot of fun together and make the effort to spend time with our extended family and friends often. That is what really matters. I don’t try to “do it all” and wholeheartedly believe good enough is good enough. No illusions of perfection here. We all share household responsibilities. Laundry and cooking are life skills best learned young. The Cancer Card Xchange office is housed in a large, guest-room closet. I can work on sending out gifts and paperwork when the kids are at school or at night. Joel does the accounting work on the weekends. I update the website and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) with my iPhone from anywhere and everywhere.
Based on The Cancer Card Xchange experience, what advice would you give others?
You don’t have to have a lot of money to do something, to help someone. Don’t wait for the perfect time or when you can do something bigger or more impressive. You don’t have to have every single thing planned out. Just do something. I started The Cancer Card Xchange with the purchase of a domain name, a Facebook page and a post office box. And now we have given almost 1,000 people close to $100,000 worth of gift cards in three years’ time.
Do you have a favorite quote?
“People are good.” — Jeff Hawkins
Before The Cancer Card Xchange was created and after our friends had given us a gift card for dinner during my cancer, I collected gift cards for my friend’s family. Jeff Hawkins had late-stage bladder cancer. I wanted to help them in some way, so I asked people I knew to donate gift cards to offset the financial burden of them not working. Word spread, and friends, family, strangers sent hundreds of dollars’ worth. I knew then that this was something I could do. Before he died, Jeff would often talk about the outpouring of kindness that people showed his family. He would say, “People are good.” We were a small part of that, and it stuck with me. It’s a great reminder of where the focus should be.
Before starting The Cancer Card Xchange, did you ever think that nonprofit leadership would become your career?
I worked in marketing for an architecture firm before I “retired,” a year after our second son was born. I never dreamed that I would be using the skills I learned at that job to do what I am doing now through The Cancer Card Xchange, but the basic principles of marketing haven’t changed — cultivating and maintaining relationships, good public relations and networking — though now, part of that is done through social media. Back then, I had just gotten my first email address.
What kind of research did you do before starting The Cancer Card Xchange?
Funny, but I didn’t do any. I had never done anything like this before, and maybe that worked in my favor. I didn’t know all the things that could’ve discouraged me from just going for it. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. A lot of people might have spent months or even years planning first. I just decided to do something and ended up figuring it out and learning as I went.
Did anything in the process of setting up a nonprofit organization surprise you?
I had no idea what to expect. I am glad that I took my husband’s advice to go forward with the 501(c)(3) process. It was definitely the best thing to do. It has allowed us to pursue grants and affiliations with corporate giving programs like Kroger and Amazon. And once we got set up? Paperwork. I had no idea the amount of paperwork, record-keeping, receipts, etc., that would be required.
Are you partial to any other charitable organizations? If so, in what capacity and why?
I am partial to any organization that directly helps people with as little overhead expense as possible. And those that are cancer-related. The V Foundation (Jim Valvano) is another that I particularly like. One hundred percent of direct cash donations made to them go to cancer research, and overhead expenses are funded through a separate endowment. As The Cancer Card Xchange expands, I would like to follow a similar model.
What does an average day look like for Emily Tickle Thomas?
Family, fun, laundry, friends, The Cancer Card Xchange.
If you had to define yourself in three words, what would they be?
Content. Confident. Unafraid.
Now, for some fun questions! What must-have fashion item is in your closet for Summer 2014?
I am going to find as many places as I can to wear a pair of Ann Taylor snakeskin ankle-strap heels I bought recently.
Do you have a beauty product you can’t imagine not using?
I’ve tried more-expensive products, but I always go back to the basic Oil of Olay daily moisturizer.
Your number one vacation or travel destination?
My husband and I try to take a weekend trip to the beach every year, usually to the 30A area near Destin, FL. We have been to more exotic locations with and without our kids, but I have been going to the 30A/Destin area almost my whole life, and it is still my favorite vacation destination.
What three lighthearted things could you not live without?
My iPhone, magazines and my Suburban for hauling my family around!
Are there any special events that you are looking forward to this summer?
Beginning in June, the Collierville Concert Series is a free concert every Thursday night at the Collierville Square. People bring chairs and picnic suppers. Great small-town tradition for all ages!
Thank you, Emily! And thank you to Christen Jones for today’s wonderful photos of Emily, taken on Main Street in Collierville.
And, a note about the $5,000 StyleBlueprint Memphis Charity Giveaway:
We are excited that The Cancer Card Xchange will celebrate its three-year anniversary this month with the added bonus of a $5,000 StyleBlueprint Memphis Charity Giveaway prize. Emily says that winning the SB Giveaway will help them hit their June 2014 goal of sharing gift cards with 1,000+ people and their families who are battling cancer together. If you are in the neighborhood, join us at 6 p.m. on June 10, when we will present The Cancer Card Xchange with their SB Giveaway prize in the historic Collierville Square. Enjoy refreshments afterwards at Square Beans!
StyleBlueprint is working its way through the South with charitable giveaways in support of our local communities. The first SB Giveaway was in Memphis this past month, and The Cancer Card Xchange won! Stay tuned: We’ll be launching similar charitable prizes soon in other SB cities!