More than 100 families from around the Chicago area with children suffering from severe and terminal illnesses spent Saturday in a winter wonderland.
The day -- dubbed Operation North Pole -- started with a special breakfast followed by a trip to the "North Pole" on Metra. It ended with a Christmas party at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, where police officers and firefighters as well as volunteers dressed like elves and superheroes. Santa himself welcomed the group.
"I've been crying on and off all day," said Emily Roeder of Elk Grove Village, whose 4-year-old daughter, Rose, has been fighting leukemia for two years. Rose worked happily on decorating a pink crown at a craft table during Saturday's event.
"To see that so many people care is just overwhelming," Roeder said.
Volunteers like Kathie Rychlik of Elgin and Joe Wilberschied of Palatine had been at the convention center since 7 a.m. setting up tables for food, crafts, games, candy, prizes, presents and more.
"The smiles on the kids' faces are the best part," Wilberschied said. "It's so magical."
Other volunteers brought comfort animals, including dogs and ponies, and middle school dance groups from Barrington entertained the crowd.
While children enjoyed the sparkling Christmas trees, piles of candy and presents, and fake snow blowing down from the ceiling, it was an emotional day for many grateful parents.
"I can't believe people spend so much time for these kids who have been through so much," said Heather Harley of Elburn, whose 8-year-old son, JD, has had eight major surgeries, including on his brain and spinal cord, due to a rare genetic chromosomal disorder. "I can't tell you how many holidays we have spent in the ICU." For families who have received a more recent diagnosis, the day was a break to be happy.
"This is such a gift after a really rough year," said Fran Thompson of Park Ridge, whose 3-year-old son, Tommy, was diagnosed with leukemia in January. Tommy stopped to wave hello to Elsa, the main character from Disney's "Frozen," who led the crowd in a singalong of "Let it Go."
Getting to the event wasn't easy for some families whose children are still battling their illnesses, but parents said it was worth it.
"There's not enough words to describe it," said Terra Atkinson of Bolingbrook, whose 7-year-old daughter, Kendall, suffers from a mitochondrial disease and is in intestinal failure. Kendall has been in ICU all week and has another surgery planned for Tuesday, so doctors weren't sure she would be able to come to Operation North Pole. But they set Kendall up with an IV stored in a bright yellow backpack that sat next to her while she got her face painted like a reindeer.
"I had to beg the doctors to let her out of the hospital for this," Atkinson said. "This is the best kind of medicine. It's about quality of life."
Siblings were invited too, as it was a day of fun and festivities for the whole family.
McKinley Parchim, 8, of St. Anne got her hair and makeup done in a makeover center at the event. She was there to support her younger brother Mason, 5, who has a chromosomal disorder that causes severe epilepsy.
"This means a lot for her. We spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital this year, so it's important to have some time just for her, too," said their mother, Amanda Parchim. "She's a great big sister."