Dec. 11-- Natalie and Zack Reed's 5-year-old son, Connor, has been through a lot in the last year since he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
He's been undergoing chemotherapy to fight the cancer of the blood and bone marrow while still trying to live as much of a normal kindergartner's life as possible.
"He's responding incredibly well," Ms. Reed, of New Kensington, said recently, noting her son has another year of chemotherapy in front of him.
But the impact of a potentially life-threatening disease is not just a physical battle. It is also emotional and social, impacting everyone in the family, including Connor's two young sisters, Avril, 7 and Quinn, 4. Focusing on Connor's disease meant that Christmas was quite a bit down on the list of priorities this year.
A social worker at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, where Connor is being treated, recognized that. She suggested that Ms. Reed contact Jamie's Dream Team so that the family could take part in A Christmas to Remember party on in the Lynx FBO hangar at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin.
Back in November the Reeds-just like about 250 other kids and adults with life-threatening diseases, handicaps, or serious injuries who were put in touch with the Dream Team-were given a form to fill out for 10 gifts that each of their kids' would like for Christmas. Ms. Reed then sent it back to the McKeesport-based nonprofit.
"Then I got a call from Kim Shidel," the mother of Jamie Holmes Ward, who started the organization in 2005. "And she said, 'You'll be getting everything off the list for all of your kids.' I was just floored. I thought maybe they'd get just a few of them," Ms. Reed said.
The wish-list included bikes for all three kids, as well as a crane and Hot Wheel toy cars for Connor.
"It's a huge help this year," said Ms. Reed, who had to stop working to care for Connor. Though Mr. Reed is still working, finances were going to be tight this year, she said.
As Christmas music filled the 40-foot-tall hangar, volunteers, mostly teenage girls, played the part of elves and escorted some of the invited children to crafts tables. There were cookies to snack on, too, which brought smiles to the faces of kids like Connor, who have endured so much battling their diseases or injuries.
The smiles of the kids in attendance got larger still just after noon when Santa made his appearance. He landed along with Mrs. Claus and one helper-elf just outside the hangar in the WPXI news helicopter, coming in to visit with each child and giving them one small gift each. Parents, meanwhile, quietly stored away the sealed bags of gifts from their lists in their cars.
"When you're going through treatment, or your child is, the last thing the family is thinking about is Christmas," said Ms. Ward, the founder of the organization she started when she was 18 years old after enduring years of medical procedures herself because of the VATER Syndrome she is afflicted with. "So we make sure their Christmas needs are met."
This sixth year of the party for more than 250 kids and adults was a change from what Ms. Ward and her band of Western Pennsylvania-based volunteer elves used to do to deliver presents: Go door-to-door for kids and adults on the list, delivering gifts individually.
"But we thought a party would be a nice addition," Ms. Ward said.
Jessica Holloway, 19, a sophomore at Seton Hill University, has been volunteering with the Dream Team since she was 7 and lived in North Huntingdon, and she has volunteered to be an elf at every Christmas party since it began six years ago.
Her work with the organization helped lead her into medicine-she is working to be a physician's assistant-and to help kids come to the party every year in a direct way.
"I decided because of this I wanted to help even more and be in the medical field," she said.
The event was overwhelming to many parents, who began readily crying recounting why it was so important to them.
"It helps a lot," said Darcy Young, who drove an hour from New Castle with her family, including her 9-month-old daughter, Marjorie, who was born prematurely and had much of her intestine removed and has to be fed intravenously.
"I can't work" because of caring for her daughter, she said, tearing up during the conversation.
Dennis Mowery came to the party from Marianna in Washington County with his step-daughter, Alyssa, 7, who was diagnosed with a cancerous Germinoma brain tumor five months ago.
Being invited to the party and to be given gifts for all four of his and his girlfriend's children "was surprising."
"You don't expect it," he said. "You're just out there trying to get through life. You're busy with everything else. You're just not thinking about Christmas. You're thinking about getting done what needs to be done."
When Ms. Ward started her organization in 2005, her goal was to give, like the name implies, "dreams" to people battling disease or recovering from an injury or handicap.
The original concept addressed each case individually, working something like the Make-a-Wish Foundation, allowing people to fulfill a dream or wish, whether it was visiting Boston's Fenway Park, renovating a home or yard or giving someone a quickly arranged wedding.
Meghan Koziel of Kennedy, dressed in an elf's outfit while she painted the faces of children, was the recipient of a wedding Ms. Ward hastily arranged and put on for her just before she began going through chemotherapy for breast cancer in 2015.
"I didn't want to be bald for my wedding," Ms. Koziel said about the decision to get married quickly.
An aunt knew about Ms. Ward's organization and put a call in to her, and before Ms. Koziel knew what was happening, "Jamie called and said she's putting on my whole wedding," including renting a venue, hiring a D.J, purchasing food, even arranging a horse and carriage for the couple's entrance.
"Ever since then, my family and friends were so thankful for what she did for me that we've helped out with this (Christmas party) every year since," she said. "I probably have 10 to 15 family and friends volunteering here today."
One of the hardest parts of the Christmas party every year for volunteers is when some of those in attendance who they got to know don't survive to the next Christmas.
"We know for some of them, this will be their last Christmas," said Ms. Koziel. "That's the hardest part about this."
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