The Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is considered the busiest facility of its kind in the nation.
The number of kids under the center's care at any given time averages 5,100 for cancer treatments, 1,500 cancer survivors for follow-up visits and 2,100 kids for sickle cell disease or other blood disorders.
And each time those children must endure the intangible fear and pain they receive from those procedure, they also receive a tangible reward for their perseverance -- thanks to James Mailman's compassion and leadership.
Mailman and his coworkers at Aflac in Columbus collect coins and conduct other fundraisers to generate the $12,000 the center needs each year to pay for the Beads of Courage program.
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The patients earn a bead for each procedure they go through, and they proudly display them on their strands. For example, white beads are for chemotherapy or immunizations, blue beads are for clinic visits or infusions, glow-in-the-dark beads are for radiation, star beads are for surgery, red beads are for blood transfusions, black beads are for pokes or injections, and yellow beads are for overnight stays in the hospital.
For his effort, Mailman is among this year's 55 Fortune 500 Heroes, a special group of employees at the nation's largest companies honored for their inspirational acts of charity and goodness.
"Millions and millions of dollars go to research," Mailman said. "My part of it is to make the kids smile."
He already had been helping the center before he got involved with Beads of Courage. Since 2004, Mailman has led Aflac's fundraisers that produced more than $262,000 for the center, including wish-list items such as a rocking chair in each hospital room after he heard a grandfather wasn't allowed to hold his grandson because nurses were afraid he would drop the baby. Other wish-list items Mailman's team has purchased for the center are a foosball table, video games, big-screen TVs and gift cards.
So about six years ago, when Diane Vaughan, the center's senior development officer, needed someone to implement the local version of the international Beads of Courage program, she immediately knew whom to call.
"James just has an enormous heart," Vaughan said. "There was absolutely no hesitation. He said, 'I'll get it done,' and he certainly has."
"To me it was a no-brainer," Mailman said. "I'd been up there before to see the kids. I saw what the kids go through, and they were doing it just to make their parents happy. Now, they get something out of it, and it helps them understand what's going on. I mean, I mean, just look."
He gestured toward 6-year-old Tinsley, healthy and cancer-free, playing with her strands of beads, her Beads of Courage.
Tinsley's mother, Amanda Gordy, is a process audit specialist for Aflac. She went from initially helping Beads of Courage to benefiting from the program when Tinsley was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 11 months old.
"After Tinsley was diagnosed," she said, "I was like, 'I was collecting change for this.'"
During her 2½ years of treatment, Tinsley earned hundreds of beads. The most cherished one is the purple heart, which signifies she is finished with her treatments.
"It's a symbol of what she's been through," Gordy said.
Mailman shares credit for the Fortune 500 award with Gordy and other colleagues who coordinate the coin collections: Wanda Strand Youngren, Ben Stewart and James Clevenger. Mailman, however, is the one who delivered the program between Columbus and Atlanta.
"He is so humble," Vaughan said, "it's really hard to thank him enough because he just deflects it."
Mailman explained why he feels compelled to help the center: "My family has been smacked really bad by cancer."
His wife and father are cancer survivors. His mother-in-law died from cancer.
Mailman, a field liaison manager at Aflac, has worked for the supplemental health insurer for 15 years. He graduated from Baker High School in 1980, then spent 21 years in the Navy and retired as a senior chief officer before returning to Columbus.
Vaughan described the power the beads have to empower the children who too often feel powerless to control their lives.
"It's an enormous sense of pride they get," she said. "Their perspective of success is very different from yours or mine. It's a signal to everybody, 'Look what I've accomplished.'"
Mailman declared, "100 percent, every single penny that's given to us, goes to the cancer center."
Then he noted with a wry smile, "The containers are very high tech and expensive." They actually are empty plastic beverage bottles, hundreds dispersed throughout the campus. He makes his rounds to collect them once a month. When he sees them filled, it fills his heart, because he knows they will help fill ailing children and their families with hope.
At the cancer center, Mailman met an 18-year-old student who received a full scholarship to the University of Georgia after contemplating suicide because her pain was unbearable. A little girl walked up to her and said, "You have the same cancer I do. Here, this will give you courage."
After the girl gave the student a bead, Mailman said, "There was nobody in the room that wasn't crying."
The student said that bead gave her the strength to live on, Mailman said.
"I never knew that these little things meant that much," he said.
Mailman used to award the top Aflac fundraising teams trophies. Now, they receive framed artwork from the children at the cancer center. So the teams do more than collect change. They sell food or conduct yard sales or car washes. And sometimes, Mailman finds paper money amid the change.
"It doesn't surprise me when there's a 20 in there," he said.
Mailman met a 4 ½-year-old boy named Max at the cancer center. He had more than 1,000 beads. "Max had to go through some really bad treatments for a long, long time. He was a baby when he started, and he was like 5 when they said he was cured. He was a cool little dude."
Not all the cases have happy endings.
Mailman met a man at the cancer center who had a few thousand beads around his neck, including a butterfly bead, which meant his son lost his five-year battle. But the man still thanked Mailman for the beads.
"Amazing," he said. "He thanked me because his son fought and got to fight for a long time, so he got to spend more time with him."
All of which inspired Aflac to help also on a corporate level. Since 2010, Aflac and the Aflac Foundation have donated approximately $130,000 to the Beads of Courage program, said Jon Sullivan senior manager of corporate communications for Aflac. In fact, Aflac created the Wingman Bead, an Aflac duck with its wings spread. "That symbolizes you're never alone in your journey," he said.
Mailman referred to words of wisdom from the late Paul Amos, one of the three brothers who founded Aflac: "We take care of our customers one person at a time. That's one of the reasons we do what we do, Amanda and I, the atmosphere here, and we care about people here. All the kids at the cancer center deserve a little something extra."
According to the Beads of Courage website, Jean Baruch established the program while working on her doctorate in nursing at the University of Arizona after piloting it at Phoenix Children's Hospital in 2003. Since then, more than 60 children's hospitals in the United States, Canada, Britain, Japan and New Zealand have implemented the program, which helps children with serious illness "record, tell and own their stories of survival," Baruch wrote in a letter on the website.