With the reindeer resting up for the night ahead, Santa took a trip in Air Bear to Akron Children’s Hospital for the 10th annual “flight before Christmas.”
The pediatric helicopter’s whirling blades spun brown leaves into the snow-less skies over Perkins Square Park. The hospital's signature tree-topper ornament nearly toppled from a tall, decorated pine tree at Exchange and Bowery streets as the aircraft spun around to face the hospital.
Pressed against the glass in a second-floor skywalk, pediatric patients, hospital staff and their families burst into holiday cheer as old Saint Nick jumped out of the helicopter. Just then, carolers started singing “Here Comes Santa Claus” in the hospital lobby.
Little Kenzley Cool, 3, wriggled in her grandmother’s arms, waving frantically to get the big man’s attention. She was only a visitor at the hospital, there to bring her uncle home for a holiday respite amid a four-month stay from the latest complications of spina bifida.
Jaylynn Kimmel, 9, sat in a wheelchair with a pink blanket over her lap. Her younger sister, Kaitlynn, kept her mom’s lap warm on the window ledge. All Jaylynn wanted for Christmas was spy gear to catch “my brother eating my pizza,” she said, not sure which brother she'd catch. She said she expected to spend Christmas in the hospital after three weeks struggling to hold down food with a yet-undiagnosed stomach illness.
Then there were the Millers from Middlefield. A house fire last month badly burned three boys, a girl and their mother. Dad stood by, recalling how special Christmas is to the family. With much of their tiny bodies bandaged, Marvin and Robert, ages 10 and 4, winced a smile as Santa came up the escalator into the hospital’s main lobby.
Santa, after all, knows where all good children are, even the 195 who slept last night at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Three wise men
On the sixth floor, Santa hugged mothers, held newborn babies and delivered toys and cheer to boys and girls.
At the other end of the maternity ward, Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof reached into a cart of toys. There’s a book that goes with that one, said Sen. Frank LaRose, who stopped to buy some last-minute gifts to add to the pile collected this year by Ohio Senate staff.
With Sen. Vernon Sykes, the three wise men from the Ohio Senate helped Santa cross every name off his nice list. Obhof said LaRose asked him five or six years ago if the Senate could spread some Christmas spirit at children’s hospitals including University Hospitals of Cleveland and the pediatric units in Cincinnati and Columbus.
The Akron hospital holds a particularly special place in Obhof’s heart. His oldest daughter, Isabel, would have been 13 this year. She lived a day at the Akron hospital after being born with a chromosome abnormality. Obhof nearly lost his youngest daughter, 6-year-old Bell, who came down with respiratory syncytial virus (or RSV) at 10 weeks old. “It was the most nerve-racking 10 days of my life,” the Senate president said.
“We’ve spent a lot of time here, and we know what it’s like,” he said as his other two daughters — Bree, 11, and Lily, 9 — dug into the toy bin to help the wise men find the right gift to ease the next child's sorrow.
Elves at work
Behind closed doors, elves No. 1 and No. 2 (aka Helen Aberegg and Whitney Romine with Children’s Volunteer Services Department) checked that all incoming toys were in proper order. The gifts were prepped to be sorted by age and gender, then wrapped and, with Santa's instructions, tagged for delivery.
It’s hard to tell how many toys flow from the community through the hospital. “We’ve tried to get that number forever,” said Romine. “Oh my god, easily over 10,000.”
The unwrapped gifts came this year in 400 separately scheduled drop-offs. The biggest loads came in an $8,000 bundle from the Children’s Toy Fund and $20,000 raised by Bobby Ina. What toys aren’t used to brighten this holiday become year-round incentives and rewards for children headed into surgery or hitting recovery goals.
“It’s the generosity of the community that creates all the gifts we’re able to give,” Aberegg said.
In the corner of Santa’s hospital workshop, Karen King caught her breath. For 46 years, ever since she was 14, the Akron woman has volunteered her time to help the hospital around the holidays.
“I lived in a foster home and had hard times,” said King, who now lives downtown in Mayflower Manor. “Being here [at the hospital] around the holiday lifts my spirit.”
King, who said she was born with health and learning disabilities, testified to the medicinal value of yuletide joy.
“You can turn a bad thing into a good thing,” she said. “And that’s what happens at this hospital here.”
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.