Boy spends 4th Christmas Eve in a row at hospital buying meals for patients' families

Jerry Hatcher Jr. rarely gets a good night's sleep in the hours leading up to Christmas Eve.

Like many children his age, the 11-year-old Georgia boy can always be counted on to toss and turn in the hours leading up to December 24, keeping an eye on the clock until it's an acceptable time to jump out of bed. He usually doesn't make it past 5 a.m. before rising.

But unlike the many other good-intentioned tots eagerly awaiting to prepare for Santa Claus's impending arrival, Jerry — or "Junior" as he's called — had an entirely different reason to wake up this past Saturday.

For the fourth year in a row, Junior spent the day before Christmas at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) at Scottish Rite, paying for breakfasts and lunches for the families of children spending the holiday at the hospital.

"He's at the hospital by 5:30 a.m. and doesn't stop until after lunch," his mom, Jenny Hatcher, told "His feet are hurting by 2:30 p.m.... but he doesn't complain. He just wants to help."

Junior was eight when his infant brother, Javier, had two-thirds of his right lung removed at CHOA.

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"Javi" had been diagnosed with CCAM, or a fetal lung lesion, in utero, and the surgery was routine, but his condition took a turn for the worse while at the hospital.

"He decided to crash on us a few times," Hatcher said. "What was supposed to be four, five days [in the hospital] at most, turned into a two-week visit."

But Javi came through, and Junior wanted to show is gratitude to those who helped save his brother by paying it forward to others in need.

Too young to officially volunteer for the hospital, a then 8-year-old Junior took matters into his own hands.

"He and his dad were just going to sneak into the cafeteria and just start paying for food," Hatcher said, noting that pediatric patients' visitors were easy to spot as they were required to wear a specific band around their wrists.

"He had $400 in his pocket. I had told him, 'listen, all the money we have left, we were going to buy you a PS4 with.' He said 'I don't care, I don't want the PS4. I want to do this,'" Hatcher said. "I figured they'd run out of money very quickly, but people started giving him money to pay it forward."

By the end of the day, Junior had helped pay for about $1,200 worth of food.

"So he made it through breakfast and lunch, and that's what he aims for every year," Hatcher said.

Wearing his best suit, Junior proudly hands over cash as relatives of patients reach for their money. Many times, he's met with tears and hugs, which he's happy to accept.

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"He loves getting hugs. He says, 'mom, I don't want people to be sad; it's Christmas Eve. If I can just make you smile and give you a hug, everything's okay,'" she said. "We get a lot of tears and a lot of hugs and a lot of stories about what [other parents'] kids are going through. My husband ends ups talking to the dads, shaking hands, and the moms end up talking to me for a while — crying, airing out frustrations and just having an adult-who-understands moment."

Any money Junior accrues during the year for doing chores and at his birthday goes into an account intended to go toward his yearly trip to CHOA, his mom said.

"We're very proud of him," she said. "He has ADHD, and he rides the line because he has a high IQ... it's hard for him to stay focused, but ironically enough, this is something that keeps him focused."

Always a civically- and medically-minded child, Junior has said he hopes his work will help inspire others to do the same.

"It keeps him pretty sane to have a bigger goal than himself," Hatcher told "He's said, 'if I can get another kid in another city doing this, hey, that would be awesome.' That's his next goal, and I can see his wheels turning."