Operation North Pole provides 'holiday adventure' for sick kids and their families
Sadie Allison has only one look on her face Saturday afternoon, and the 3-year-old hasn't even seen Santa yet.
Her mom hinted at what was to come as the little girl embarked on a "holiday adventure." But every moment on this excursion is somehow topped by the next.
"Just in awe and amazement and joy," Sadie's mom, Hailey, said of her daughter's singular facial expression. "Pure joy."
Sadie has to endure eight more months of chemotherapy in a yearslong treatment protocol for leukemia. But no one on this train ride treats the Lombard girl or the other sick kids who are passengers as medically frail patients.
"They deserve it. They go through so much," Hailey Allison said. "And it just really helps them to take them away from their reality a little bit."
Operation North Pole creates the fantasy for kids and respite for their loved ones, and it is indeed a smooth operation. About 500 volunteers orchestrate the holiday adventure for 75 families, transforming the mundane into the magical. With their imagination, a Metra train ride becomes a "Polar Express." A convention center becomes a "winter wonderland." And kids who have spent their childhood in hospitals become kids again.
"Today is a day where we can forget about who's sick and who's not, and we all have fun," Barb Dabler said.
She's one of the founders of the nonprofit Operation North Pole along with Tim Crossin, a retired firefighter-paramedic from the Niles Fire Department. They're both Type-A "adrenaline junkies." But there's a moment at the start of the day, when Dabler is riding in a squad car with a procession of firetrucks and police escorting busloads of families to the Des Plaines Metra station. She sees bystanders stop to take pictures and fight back tears, and then the logistics of it all hits her.
"I'm like, 'Wow look at what we've done. Look what we've done for these families,'" Dabler said.
Firefighters from Des Plaines to Itasca to Glencoe greet families in red "North Pole Fire Department" T-shirts. Along with nurses and parents, they help children in wheelchairs and strollers off buses. Police are here, too, covering their uniform patches with a "North Pole" version.
"There's no chiefs. There's no firefighters. Everybody's just an elf. That's what we do," Des Plaines Fire Chief Alan Wax said.
At 11:11 a.m., a train horn playing a few notes of "Jingle Bells" announces the arrival of the Polar Express. Angel Martinez doesn't want a window seat. The 9-year-old from Lake in the Hills wants a picture with a conductor, who doesn't mind the cookie crumbs in the aisle.
"He's never, I don't think, felt sorry for himself," said his mom, Edilia Martinez. "It's just more he wants to live life. He wants to experience things."
Angel, who has stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive bone and soft tissue cancer, spent last Christmas in the hospital, and that broke his mom's heart.
"It's like time stops," she said with tears in her eyes.
But the Operation North Pole train ride from Des Plaines to Crystal Lake and back let her family experience holiday wonderment again as magicians performed tricks and ukulele-playing carolers led singalongs.
"It's truly amazing," she said. "I feel a lot of love."
That amazement carried over to the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont for a holiday extravaganza. The guests of honor made their entrance to the high-fives of firefighters who formed two long lines on bended knee.
"It's really a huge comfort to be able to do something so special and to have their journey be honored," said Sarah Zematis, whose daughter, Sophia, has been receiving treatment for a brain tumor and made bracelets during the train ride to give back to volunteers.
Over the last year, Operation North Pole raised enough funds to give each child -- those who are sick and their siblings -- $300 worth of gifts, Dabler said.
"Our volunteers, they wait every year for this because this is their Christmas," she said.