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Article updated: 11/17/2012 5:29 PM

Operation North Pole brings 'magic' to kids battling health problems

By Marie Wilson

Triplets like Jennifer, Julia and Faith McMahon, and Hayden, Hannah and Holden Miller have spent their fair share of time in hospitals as tiny newborns, but on Saturday, their families and many others spent time somewhere much more magical -- on a fantasy trip to the "North Pole."

Operation North Pole brought more than 200 families of children with previous health issues or terminal illnesses on a journey through the Northwest suburbs via the "Polar Express," a Metra train that featured cookies, carols, gifts and plenty of Christmas spirit.

"They're stuck in a storybook for the afternoon," said Phil Wenz of Santa's Village Azoosement Park in East Dundee, who dressed as Santa Claus and greeted participants when their Polar Express ride ended in Des Plaines.

Everything about the day's adventure delighted the senses. From the warm taste of a breakfast at Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, to the spirited sound of "Jingle Bells" played on a train horn, to the visual spectacle of Santa Claus atop a fire truck, kids and families had plenty to take in.

"It's really exciting, and you only get one chance to do this," said 11-year-old triplet Jennifer McMahon of Lake Villa.

Operation North Pole, an all-volunteer nonprofit, works with Ronald McDonald House locations and children's hospitals to choose the families who will embark on the day of fun and fantasy each year. Santa, gifts and the magical train ride are meant to briefly ease the emotional and financial stress of coping with a child's illness, volunteers said.

"They have such a short life span, why not make it as happy as you can?" volunteer Colleen Hedstrom of Des Plaines said about children with terminal conditions.

Some children on the train, like 6-year-old Natalie and 8-year-old Allison Liigsoo of Arlington Heights, were born prematurely but are no longer battling significant health issues. Others, like 5-year-old brain cancer patient Rusty Schultz of Valparaiso, Ind., are currently undergoing treatment.

All experienced a bus ride from Rosemont to Pingree Grove, then a train ride from Pingree Grove to Des Plaines with Mrs. Claus, caroling and cookies. As the train slowed to a crawl at many suburban stations along the way, Polar Express riders were greeted by firefighters giving a friendly wave.

Parents called the event a "blessing" as they awaited the day's grand finale -- a trip to the "North Pole" itself, a winter wonderland set up in the expanses of the Stephens Convention Center. Des Plaines firefighters, police and community volunteers helped clear traffic for the final leg of the journey and welcomed excited children as they stepped off the train.

"They're going above and beyond just delivering gifts -- they're making an entire day for the children," Wenz said about Operation North Pole volunteers. "They're creating the magic."

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