A very special Metra train spreading a whole lot of holiday cheer -- think jolly firemen, impish elves and a rambunctious Mrs. Santa -- carried more than 60 children and families on a one-of-a-kind ride Saturday morning from Des Plaines to Crystal Lake and back.
The children, all of whom suffer from terminal or life-threatening illnesses, laughed and squealed. Their parents smiled happily, the pain and heartache put aside, even if just for a few hours, thanks to Operation North Pole.
"The holidays are usually difficult," said Karyn Hernandez of Schaumburg, whose daughter Vanessa, 4, has chronic lung disease and tends to get ill during flu season. Vanessa breathes through a tracheotomy tube hooked up to an oxygen tank.
"We're really loving it," Karyn Hernandez said during the train ride. "All this is amazing."
Some families with sick kids stay away from holiday gatherings, said Tiffany Cyrier of Kankakee, whose 7-year-old, CharliSue, was born with craniosynostosis and now has behavioral and developmental issues. Craniosynostosis is a birth defect in which one or more of the joints between the bones of a baby's skull close prematurely, before the child's brain is fully formed.
"This is the first big Christmas thing we've done. We skip a lot of things; we don't do a lot of stuff, because it's hard for people to understand kids with special needs," Cyrier said.
"Sometimes you feel like you're going crazy. You ask, 'Why me?'" she said, her eyes welling up. "Then you come here, and you find all this, and everyone is just so nice."
Operation North Pole is an all-volunteer nonprofit that raises funds year-round for the December event, now in its fifth year. Local Ronald McDonald houses and children's hospitals help select participating families.
The day started with a buffet breakfast at the Rosemont Convention Center. Families then boarded school buses that took them to the Des Plaines Metra station, where they got on the train, nicknamed the Gingerbread Express.
Along the way, firefighters from different communities waved and held signs pointing to the North Pole.
Aboard the train, the kids got to sing Christmas carols and visit with husky therapy dogs and Ronald McDonald. They also got goody bags filled with elves' hats, reindeer noses, coloring books and crayons.
But the real, jaw-dropping surprise came when they returned to the convention center and entered "Winter Wonderland," a ballroom lit up by festive Christmas trees and giant hanging snowflakes.
There were a variety of activities -- a photo booth, nail painting and dance performances, plus popcorn, ice cream, and loads of free candy -- 1,600 pounds to be exact. And of course, Santa was there for a private visit with each of the kids.
The generosity of Operation North Pole was overwhelming, Nicole Szklanecki of Lombard said.
"It's really amazing," Nicole said as her 10-month-old, Jaycee, gurgled happily in her arms. Jaycee was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and already has had two open heart surgeries.
"Everybody is so excited. It's not just the families, it's everybody who is so involved," said Nicole's husband, Rob Szklanecki.
Jacob Waterman of Mattoon, whose 7-year-old son, Gavin, has Ewing's sarcoma, a rare cancer that affects children, said the family was very grateful.
"It's pretty neat that people do all this for the kids," Waterman said.
Gavin wore a Bears' face mask to stave off germs, as he is going through chemotherapy.
"My favorite thing was the train and the firefighters. I told the police officer to cuff him," Gavin said, pointing at older brother Kaleb, "because he's always mean to (other brother) Dylan."
Firefighters encounter lots of sick kids under difficult circumstances, so it's priceless to have the chance to make them happy, Crystal Lake Fire Department Battalion Chief Thomas Pollnow said.
"To relieve their worries for just one day, it's the best thing that could ever happen," he said.
Eleven-year-old Abby Higel of Hobart, Ind., said she was stunned at how the day turned out. Abby was born prematurely at 25 weeks and suffers from neuroparalysis.
"I thought I was just going to sit on Santa's lap, which I didn't want to do," she said. "Instead, there was a whole bunch of candy!"
The families got a thrilling reception in Rosemont, said Abby's mother, Michelle Higel.
"I got choked up seeing all the firemen there, waving at us. We should be waving at them," Michelle said. "My daughter asked me, 'Is there a parade today?' I told her, 'Yes, we're in it!'"
"We laughed more today, and smiled more today, than we had in a while."