Niles firefighter Jim Leibach wiped away tears, as did some of the other 200 local firefighters and police officers, as they stood on bended knee and welcomed 75 seriously or terminally ill children to the "North Pole" Saturday at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont.
The children -- some in wheelchairs or using walkers or oxygen tanks -- were invited to Operation North Pole, a charity created by retired Niles Fire Chief Tim Crossin and Advocate Lutheran General Hospital nurse Barb Dabler to bring a day of holiday joy to sick children and their families.
It began with an unforgettable train ride on decorated Metra cars, where the children had "snowball" fights, listened to carolers, received gifts and had costumed visitors like Buddy from "Elf."
They were bused from the Cumberland stop to the convention center, where they were greeted by a long and winding row of uniformed police officers and firefighters in red North Pole Fire Department T-shirts. They high-fived the children as they walked toward the "North Pole," an elaborately decorated 28,000-square-foot room.
People posed for pictures with Santa and visited activity stations where they could do things such as petting puppies or picking out their own superhero cape and mask.
One mom lifted her daughter out of her wheelchair and held her up so she could wave a pompon and dance to the Taylor Swift song "Shake it Off" with costumed girls from Premier Poms in Lake Barrington.
"I heard it was wonderful, but this is just beyond expectations," said Carrie Crookham of Wauconda, who was there with her 4-year-old son, Quinn, who has a rare condition known as VACTERL Association that's so far required eight surgeries, visits to nine specialists and ongoing issues that require regular hospital visits. "This is the first time we've been out in a month. It's been good to see so many people come together and make the kids feel special."
Jamie Hanson of Rockton, said her 9-year-old son, Rylan, woke up early because he was so excited about the day. Rylan has only half of a heart and is awaiting a transplant.
"He's said 'Best day ever!' three times today," she said. "I had tears in my eyes when we walked in."
It was the first train ride for Karolina Hanusova, 10, of Hoffman Estates, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
"She's having a good time," said her mother, Michaela. "I just can't believe how many people it must have taken to put all this together for us."
Knowing this could be the last Christmas these children have, local police, firefighters and hundreds of volunteers set out to make it a special one.
"In some ways, it's sad. But look how much fun they're having," said Niles Fire Chief Marty Feld. "If you have children, it makes you grateful for what you have. You think of what these kids and families go through ... and it puts into perspective how blessed we are."