Traditions are an important part of any family holiday celebration. But what happens to those plans when a child is hospitalized and a health crisis threatens?
"It's a terribly difficult time of the year for hospitalized children and their families," says Katie Hammerberg, child life services coordinator at Alexian Brothers Women and Children's Hospital in Hoffman Estates. "For children, it's all about keeping traditions and the magic of the holidays alive -- especially when they are sick and away from home."
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How you can helpNew toys, games, books, new-release DVDs, arts and crafts kits and gift cards are accepted, during the holidays or anytime throughout the year, for hospitalized children at local hospitals.
Cadence Health Central DuPage Hospital Child Life Department (19 pediatric beds, seven intensive care beds and 23 neonatal intensive care unit beds) -- 25 Winfield Road, Winfield, (630) 933-PLAY (7529).
Alexian Brothers Women's and Children's Hospital Child Life Department (24 pediatric beds and eight intensive care beds) -- 1555 N. Barrington Road, Hoffman Estates, (847) 843-2000, Ext. 6634.
Advocate Children's Hospital at Park Ridge Child Life Department (65 pediatric beds, 60 neonatal intensive care unit beds) -- 1775 Dempster, Park Ridge, (847) 723-PLAY (7529).
Sponsorship opportunities are available for a monthly meal or other programs, including weekly magic shows, massage programs for parents or birthday and holiday parties.
New toys for any age -- including infants and teens -- may be dropped off at the front of the Children's Outpatient Center in the Yacktman Pavilion Drum on the following dates: Ÿ Wednesday, Dec. 11, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Ÿ Saturday, Dec. 14, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Ÿ Wednesday, Dec. 18, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Ÿ Sunday, Dec. 22, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Bob Mandarino and his family, from South Elgin, know too well the toll an extended hospitalization can take. Three years ago, his teen daughter, Alyssa, spent the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the intensive care unit battling kidney damage, as the result of a rare disease.
"Holiday plans changed dramatically," recalls Mandarino, who says it wasn't long before his two younger sons began wondering if the family would be putting up a tree or any decorations that year. "It was a tough time for the whole family."
In the ensuing years, Mandarino and his electronics company colleagues, local sales representatives and manufacturers have banded together to gift other children hospitalized during the holidays with toys and holiday cheer.
Lighting up the holidays at Alexian Brothers Women and Children's Hospital
"We often field requests from community groups hoping to help us help families keep traditions alive, even during stressful times filled with health challenges," says Hammerberg. "In addition to frequent holiday visitors, including carolers and even Santa, many local families, community groups and businesses like Walgreens help light up the holidays by hosting special toy drives, offering entertainment and spreading holiday cheer throughout the hospital corridors."
Barrington residents Badal and Sonia Shah are parents of two young toddlers and are among those making holiday toy collections for the Alexian Brothers Health System team a part of their annual holiday party.
"We know there is a lot of need, and putting smiles on children's faces is priceless," says Shah, who is a founder of the Dream India Academy, a Chicago- and Barrington Hills-based organization dedicated to building leadership skills through the combination of sports and education.
This year, the Alexian Brothers Women and Children's Hospital Santa's Toy Shop will open on Christmas Eve, staffed by volunteers who help families find the perfect age-appropriate gift for hospitalized children and their siblings. Volunteers help wrap selections and even visit with patients in the hospital's pediatric and pediatric intensive care units to allow moms and dads time to shop.
A special Santa's Toy Shop cart also makes the rounds in the neonatal intensive care unit, the hospital intensive care unit and the adult oncology floors.
Newborns each receive a holiday stocking, handmade by the hospital's Silver Threads volunteer sewing group. The group provides hand-sewn gifts in honor of each holiday throughout the year.
Decking the halls at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital
"It is wonderful when children and their families have distractions from the hospital setting, especially when they aren't feeling well and are away from home during the holidays" says Denise Morrissey Chaveriat, child life specialist at Advocate Children's Hospital in Park Ridge. "We celebrate all year long alongside families to recognize accomplishments and birthdays, host bravery parties, celebrate last treatments and going home parties and mark visits from the tooth fairy, the arrival of the Easter Bunny, spring, Purim and, at this time of year, Christmas."
For children hospitalized during the holidays in the pediatrics hospital, tiny newborns in neonatal intensive care and even those visiting the pediatric emergency department and their families, hospital stays can be scary. It's an especially trying time for parents and families when holidays are marred with pediatric hospital stays.
"Normal 'homelike' activities can help children acclimate to the new environment," says Morrissey Chaveriat, who notes that activities like a pediatric trick-or-treat parade, special visitors or a Thanksgiving celebration complete with dinner, games and autumnal crafts aid children by stimulating their natural sense of play and routine.
"For children battling a childhood or life-threatening illness, being hospitalized can be frightening and means a disruption to their normal routines," says Morrissey Chaveriat, who says that the hospital's 13 child life specialists help prepare children in age-appropriate ways for various tests and procedures, provide distractions and offer a sense of normalcy.
With this month's arrival of winter and the approaching new year, Advocate's child life specialists involve teams to help decorate children's inpatient areas, the outdoor patios and rooftops for Christmas and the winter season. A variety of unique and special community visitors -- including pilots; firemen; police officers; Santa; the Chicago Bears Foundation, owners, Staley and players; Chicago Cubs players; and more -- all meet and greet patients, answer questions and often distribute small gifts.
Hospitalized children have an opportunity to catch a ride on the hospital's very own holiday express-style train, and activity rooms are packed with special arts and crafts offerings, music activities and more to tempt and enhance a child's natural sense of play.
"This year, we have the author of 'The Elf on the Shelf' coming to perform a story hour, a special holiday train for our young patients to ride and a visit from Santa," explains Morrissey, who notes that on Christmas Day, Santa passes out wrapped presents for patients and their families.
Assisting the Advocate Child Life program during the holidays are many groups, including Santa's Gift program, the Holiday Hero Foundation, Funny Bone, Cancer Kids Care, Dairy Queen, Culvers, Ronald McDonald Children's Charities, Rainbow Therapy Dogs, Normal Moments, the Starlight Foundation, Make-A-Wish of Illinois, Songs for Love and Chai Lifeline.
Making the season bright at Cadence Health Central DuPage Hospital
"It's a beautiful thing to see how a simple act of kindness or generosity can blossom," says Dora Castro-Ahillen, child life therapy coordinator at Cadence Health Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield. "The entire month of December is packed with a number of special events, visitors and surprises for our young hospitalized patients and those making lengthy outpatient visits."
Castro-Ahillen acknowledges that while no one wants to be in the hospital during the holidays, the plight of families with young babies and children especially tug at her heartstrings.
"For some new parents, their dreams of baby's first Christmas are dramatically altered," she says. "We can help them get a picture with Santa and provide some sense of normalcy with special activities, decorations and even gifts. It doesn't alter their dreams, but it can help make their memories a little brighter."
The hospital, which accepts toy and gift card donations all year long, has a variety of surprises on tap for this year. Pilots for Kids, a group of uniformed pilots, will visit with small toy gifts, and therapy dogs will be on hand for a cuddle. The DuPage Sheriff's Office will bring Ronald McDonald or other costumed visitors, and volunteer "elves" from Office Max will distribute toys.
The Little Giraffe Foundation, a group of former neonatal intensive care parents dedicated to supporting neonatal research and helping the parents and patients of the NICU, will supply toys at eight local hospitals. Chick-fil-A will send their mascot dressed as Santa, and many of the local surrounding villages will help fill holiday stockings for kids with age-appropriate toys for infants and toddlers, as well as gift cards for teens.