Cyber Santa uses technology to deliver gifts to sick children in Hoffman Estates

Is it a sign of the times?

When Santa visited with children last week in the pediatric department at Amita Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital in Hoffman Estates, it was not in the way you may think.

More than 20 children were in the hospital that day, and since they were too sick to go to the mall to visit Santa - let alone the North Pole - Santa came to them through the miracle of technology via FaceTime on an iPad.

Marcel, a 2-year-old from Elk Grove Village, asked for cars like he saw in the Disney movie "Cars."

Manny, a 9-year-old from Hoffman Estates, asked for a PlayStation 4 video game cartridge and controller and a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot game.

Darian, 11 months, of Hanover Park asked for a Tonka truck.

One of the older patients, a 17-year-old boy, asked for a new immune system, but if not that, then a PlayStation 4 game system.

As these young patients told Santa the gifts they dreamed of this holiday season, the elves at the Meijer store in Elgin were pulling items off their shelves, processing them through a designated checkout aisle and getting them wrapped, all in less than two hours.

Consequently, after visiting with Cyber Santa in the morning and relaxing over lunch, youngsters were settling in for an afternoon rest when who should appear, but the jolly old elf himself - bearing the very gifts they had asked him for.

"Everyone was left with hearts filled with the magic of Christmas," said Katie Hammerberg, the hospital's Child Life Services coordinator, "with smiles from ear to ear and tears of gratitude and joy."

I was with members of the Child Life Services department who coordinated with staff members at the Meijer store in Elgin to pull off Operation Cyber Santa.

"We've heard of other children's hospitals having their patients visit with Cyber Santa," Hammerberg said, "but we wanted to take it one step further.

"Parents are under a lot of stress when their children are in the hospital," Hammerberg added. "We wanted to help make the holidays a little more special - even magical."

This was the second year that Meijer partnered with the hospital, committing $3,000 to the project. The store has already agreed to participate again next year, she said.

"The event would not have been possible without the very kind and generous donation from the people at Meijer," Hammerberg said, crediting them for "every single gift delivered by Santa."

Matt Wakely, vice president and chief communications officer of the Amita Health, said the efforts took teamwork and detailed planning.

"This was a real logistical challenge on so many fronts," Wakely said, adding that rehearsals and preparations began weeks ago.

Wakely pointed to a mantra that employees at both places embraced:

"Christmas is about 'believing,' believing that there is a Santa, believing that there are wonderful people who want to make a difference, believing that a child will feel better and go home for the holidays."

One of Santa's elves, Meijer employee LeAnne Clayton, carries the PlayStation 4 game system she has pulled from the shelves at the store in Elgin after a boy at Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital made a Christmas wish to Santa via a FaceTime conversation. Courtesy of Amita Health
Meijer employee Iesha Childs runs gifts pulled from the shelves of the store in Elgin through the checkout. They were then wrapped and delivered to children at Amita Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital in Hoffman Estates. Courtesy of Amita Health
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