Hundreds greet North Pole Express in Crystal Lake
The special express train was a bit behind schedule Saturday, but that didn't diminish the enthusiasm of about 200 onlookers eagerly awaiting its arrival in Crystal Lake.
Reindeer antlers, Santa hats and holiday light necklaces were common fashion extras among kids, their parents and others massed on the platform of the Pingree Road station to greet a Metra train transformed to the North Pole Express.
They wouldn't be boarding but came to show support for the passengers -- seriously and terminally ill children and their families, who as part of the annual Operation North Pole charity event, were being treated to a day of fun and relief from their crushing situations.
"It's a fun way to selflessly give back," said Nicole Lexvold, leader of Girl Scout Troop 25, as she handed out bells to ring, "North Pole" signs to carry and lyrics to sing.
"The kids don't even get the to see the kids on the train. They just know they need support," she added.
According to organizers, the converted Union Pacific Northwest train carried 75 families and 164 kids aged 12 and under as well caregiver and volunteer elves and Santa and Mrs. Claus.
The festive hourlong train ride was part of a day of activities that included a winter wonderland experience, entertainment, wish list gifts, candy, music, treats and more.
Margo Santerelli, 12, of Troop 25 was among about 50 scouts from different areas on the platform at Pingree Road.
"It's a nice thing to do," she said. "It's like a little holiday for them because they can't go home."
The day began with breakfast at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. Families were escorted by a convoy of emergency vehicles with lights and sirens activated to Des Plaines where the express began its fantasy trip to the North Pole.
Emergency responders have been a big part of the effort since its inception several years ago and with the public were a presence Saturday at several rail crossings along the route as the express slowed and rolled through.
Originally, the train went to the end of the line in Harvard. "They found it was too hard on the kids, too long of a day so they shortened it to Crystal Lake," said Tom Pollnow, a retired battalion chief with the Crystal Lake fire department.
Pollnow organized the early local responses, which was mostly firefighters and a couple of kids.
"It's getting bigger and bigger every year," said Pollnow. "The focus is on the kids with the life-threatening illnesses, but it's also for the families," he said.
Once a year for this occasion only, he dons the distinctive red turnout coat with "Santa" Pollnow on the back given to him as a retirement gift by co-workers.
Firefighters from a half-dozen departments jumped on the train during its five-minute stop to hand out snack packs and tote bags filled with coloring books and other goodies.
"Just nice little things," said Paul DeRaedt, Crystal Lake's fire rescue chief.
The crowd sung "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells" as the train stopped and doors opened.
"It was a great experience," said Sarah Frey, assistant Cubmaster for Pack 194 out of Lake in the Hills, represented by 15 boys and their parents. "It brightened their day."