Sometimes life — whether because of a daunting diagnosis or other unforeseen circumstances — has a way of knocking us off track.
Such has been the case for scores of young pajama-clad passengers waiting at Akron’s North Side station Friday night to board two special train cars on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s popular Polar Express.
In one festively decorated car were critically and chronically ill children, their siblings and parents or guardians.
In another were children of military stationed in Afghanistan, those recently returning or those about to be deployed.
Mindful of all the unspoken prayers from parents and children — “Please make my child well” or “Bring Mommy or Daddy back home safely,” — some pretty terrific strangers were determined to make it a magical time for them.
And they did.
Their generosity not only included picking up the tab for the tickets, but also making kid-friendly fleece blankets, mittens and the like, and holiday-themed pillowcases for the children.
That doesn’t even include the more than 1,500 volunteers signed on with the railroad to help re-enact the story of the Polar Express, written by Chris Van Allsburg, about the confirmation for one little boy of Santa Claus and the North Pole.
Canton’s Kerri Bucher and her soon-to-be-deployed husband, Army Sgt. Duane Bucher, enjoyed special family time watching their 2-year-old son, Logan, delight in the discovery of the North Pole.
Also on board were Army National Guard Sgt. Patrick Sullivan (who recently returned home) and his wife, Christine, of Hartville and their three equally mesmerized little ones: Sierra, 7; Gaige, 5; and Kaden, 3.
In the other train car was 6-year-old Joshua Holcomb of Akron, whose mother, Jamie L. Jones, had earlier shared that he was going through a real rough patch and could use a little TLC.
She wrote that the “wonderful, happy little boy” was diagnosed with a brain malformation and has to have surgery.
“He also has spina bifida,” she said. “On top of that, he is losing his grandparents; they are moving.”
So this family of six — including Joshua and his three brothers — all had their eyes twinkling bright.
Wheelchair passengers like Joshua rode in a third car for safety reasons — something that his mother said didn’t go over well with a bully-type passenger who said loud enough for her to hear, “I didn’t know the retarded were going to be on the train, too.”
Even so, Jones said she quickly dismissed the woman’s ignorance and proceeded to have a great time.
“I had to,” she insisted. “It’s all about Josh.”
Grinch is great
Akron’s Dominique Dampier had her arms full with 2½-year-old triplets Paige, Dominic and Samantha; and sons Lamar, 6; and Jordan, 4. Grandma Denise Feaster was on hand to give her a strong assist. Asked what the best part of the trip was, Lamar had a rather unorthodox reply, “I guess it was the Grinch!”
Much to the Dampier family’s delight, they saw a very familiar person: Diane Stevens. When she’s not working as an elf on the Polar Express, she is Paige and Dominic’s occupational therapist at the Cleveland Clinic. Paige and Dominic have mild forms of cerebral palsy.
Robert and Rachel Abney of Jackson Township wisely took advantage of the free tickets to take their two older children — 4-year-old Robby and 2-year-old Riley — out for an extraordinary evening. Too fragile for the trip was 6-month-old Reid, who has a rare genetic disorder that affects only a few hundred children in the world. Reid stayed home with a nurse.
For many of these families, the Polar Express train ride could easily be named the Great Escape because that’s what it is — an escape from what often is an unwieldy, if not sometimes nightmarish reality.
In addition to the highly animated reading of the story of the Polar Express, the captivated passengers also were treated to hot cocoa and cookies and participated in sing-a-long of Christmas carols, games, the Hokey Pokey and even a pajama fashion parade up and down the aisles.
Of course, the best prize was when the inside of the train went dark as it pulled into the North Pole and passengers got to witness the real-life, hard-working elves, dancing gingerbread cookies and snowmen, Rudolph and the other reindeer, the Grinch and more.
Linda Williams was smiling ear to ear, mirroring the pleasure on the faces of her five adopted children, some with extraordinary special needs.
Williams, who went from working full time to part time because her children have so many medical appointments, is ever grateful to those who made this night possible for her family.
“I would never have been able to afford it,” she said.
Laura Knoebel pleaded the case for her sister, Jennifer Guyton, and Guyton’s husband, Clinton, of Akron and their five children — Darbee, 8; Allen, 7; Forest, 5; Rosco, 2, and Eva, 1 — to ride on the Polar Express.
“She fell very ill last November,” Knoebel wrote. “She struggled with blood clots her whole pregnancy. The doctors felt she was going to be fine after the birth of her baby on Nov. 15, 2011, with a little recovery time. She had a horrible headache and headed to the hospital, parked her van in the parking lot, headed inside and awoke in the ER.
“....My sister spent several weeks in and out of the hospital and still continues to recover. …Since my sister was the primary bread winner, they have fallen on financial problems as she continues to be unable to work.”
And there’s this: “Darbee struggles with asthma, allergies and juvenile idiopathic arthritis. She recently received a scholarship for dance classes as she knows she must keep moving to slow down the pain and stiffness of the JIA,” Knoebel noted.
Michelle Coffman of Ontario (near Mansfield) cradled a family photo that included her husband, Army Sgt. Ben Coffman, who is in Afghanistan. But she was no doubt focusing on her sons, Ben, 6, and Nick, 3, as they traveled to the North Pole.
Some of the children with military parents stationed in harm’s way actually thought they were traveling to the North Pole to retrieve them.
Retired Akron Police Sgt. Tom Dye, accompanied this night by his very helpful daughter Kate, raised the money for the tickets from these exceptionally generous donors: Akron Auxiliary Fraternal Order of Police No. 1, Akron FOP Lodge No. 7, Police and Firemen’s Insurance Association, D&G Uniforms and SACS Consulting.
Janet Shively Green started preparations in April to coordinate the scores of seamstresses and financial donors.
Melissa Wise coordinated finding the military families.
And there were more than 80 huggable, soft-sculpture dolls, part of Jan Householder’s international Giving Doll Ministry. Also, there were an equal number of Christmas-themed pillowcases, made by the Northeast Ohio branch of ConKerr Cancer, which serves hospitals and families across the U.S., Canada and South Africa with 125 chapters.
I wish I had memory and space to include all of the elves who work so tirelessly to put smiles on the faces of these children and their parents as well — folks, grateful beyond words, who really do deserve a break.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org