Jay Cunningham vividly remembers when his critically ill 7-month-old son, John, spent months at Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, recovering from open heart surgery to repair potentially fatal birth defects.

The Kennesaw resident said he had a brother and a sister who died from the same condition his son had. “And I have the same condition as well. I had six other kids who were fine, but it passed through me to my seventh child,” he said.

John Cunningham’s heart returned to wholeness after numerous surgeries and extended hospital stays. Now 23, he is doing well today, living in Los Angeles and pursuing a career as a fitness coach. But his father never forgot what it was like to have a child in the hospital, as well as the stress of not knowing his son’s prognosis — or even if he would survive.

Months later, Jay Cunningham gratefully provided Thanksgiving dinner for a handful of nurses and doctors on the cardiac wing who cared for his son.

“I wanted to show my gratitude, and I know hospital staffs never get enough recognition,” Jay Cunningham said. “It was on my heart to bless them.”

That dinner in 1996 was the beginning of the Cunningham family’s annual Thanksgiving lunch that now provides a fully catered dinner for every person who finds themselves at the hospital on Thanksgiving Day. It’s a holiday dinner Jay Cunningham has hosted every year for 23 years in a row and is now a family tradition.

“When you see these really sick children come into the room in their wagons with their parents or caregivers, and they’re hooked up to IV tubes and monitors, and enjoying lunch, that’s the highlight of our day,” Jay Cunningham said. “So many times, the parents are really just living in the hospital with their kids for months at a time. This gives them a good home-cooked meal. And I want what we do to be a simple thank you to all the people who care for these children.”

Twenty years ago, a supermarket chain was providing meals for everyone in the hospital. “But then they backed out, and we asked if we could step in and feed everybody,” Jay Cunningham said.

Last week, his guests numbered well over 1,000, including patients, family members, physicians, nurses, medical staff and support employees. His seven children, their spouses, his parents and dozens of friends and volunteers help with the meal’s tasks, from organizing two serving lines, maintaining crowd control and keeping the “Pie Room” fully stocked with cakes, cookies and pies of all flavors.

“We get a lot of parents of sick children who come back to volunteer the next year,” Jay Cunningham said. “They remember what it was like to have a child in the hospital with a life-threatening illness. They know how a simple meal can give them a break from that reality — even if it’s just for a few hours,” he said.

Jay Cunningham, who founded Superior Plumbing in 1988 when he was 26 years old, said while he still funds the expenses of feeding everyone at the hospital, his children are helping with the costs as they are able.

“A few years ago, we reached 20 years of doing this. I thought maybe it was time to quit, but my kids all came to me and said, ‘Dad we don’t want to quit. This is important,” he said. “I’m slowly cutting back on my involvement here, and my kids are taking up the slack (of organizing) everything it takes to make this happen.”

Along with his own children being involved with the Thanksgiving feast at Egleston, Cunningham said he has many friends from area churches who volunteer each year and eventually bring their own children with them to help.

“They want their kids to see that it’s not just about them. It’s a good way to spend the day. It becomes a multi-generational thing and this effort grows organically.”

John Cunningham also returns to the hospital for the annual event to mingle with the hospital staff, patients and families. “I was here years ago. I don’t remember it because I was just a baby, but I think when the children who are patients now realize I was a patient just like them, it gives them hope,” he said.

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