Halloween Fun at All Children's Hospital

By 2 p.m. Wednesday, the spacious lobby of All Children's Hospital was packed with enough costumed Halloween characters to fill several neighborhood blocks - with all manner of storybook figures, superheroes, cowboys, kings and queens lining the room.

     And this was just the staff, setting a festive mood for the annual event that was about to unfold: the parade of kids.

    One by one, children of all ages entered from a hallway clutching orange trick-or-treat bags and smiling at the sight that awaited them. Accompanied by parents or guardians who beamed just as broadly, they arrived with faces painted and in colorful costumes of their own, savoring a normal moment amid abnormally tough circumstances.

     Some were pushed in wheelchairs, some pulled in red wagons. Others walked tentatively by themselves. They slowly made their way around the ring of beaming hospital employees: nurses, doctors, members of All Children's many departments, and even vice presidents.

     And their bags quickly filled up with candy - along with a spirit of hope and healing.

     A couple from Tampa, Thomas and Angela, moved around the lobby with three-month-old daughter Kloe, in the hospital for observation. "This is awesome, super cool," said Thomas. "I didn't expect this at all."

    A Spring Hill mom named Cassandra moved brought her 2-year-old son Damian, a heart surgery patient dressed as Spiderman. "I think this is just wonderful," she said. "Damian got really excited for this. He's just really happy to have face painting and trick-or-tricking. It doesn't really feel like a hospital."

    The story was the same for each of the handful of small groups that came through - parents marveling at the outpouring of attention and love around them, and kids enjoying the parade route that takes them each year through various hospital floors before the big finish in the lobby.        

     "It's so nice, because the kids can't go out for trick-or-treating, so they can have it here," said Celeste, a Pinellas Park mother. Her daughter, 4-year-old Ayonna, was collecting candy for her brother, 9-year-old Ronde, who had to stay up in his room as he recovers from seizures. "It's just such a nice thing to do for the children," Celeste added.

     The fun began well before the trick or treating - first with a parade of colorfully costumed dogs, part of the hospital's pet therapy program.

     But the real hub of activity unfolded inside the children's auditorium on the hospital's second floor. The Costume Shop was hopping. Between 10 a.m. and noon, parents brought their kids into the spacious room to select from a wide array of Halloween outfits in all sizes: ninjas, ballerinas, firefighters, vampires and any get-up a kid might desire.

     Racks upon racks were filled with the outfits, and tabletops were packed with manner of accessories for the festivities to come. Many of the costumes, especially those for teens, were donated by the Children's Dream Fund through a grant from Wells Fargo.

     "All Children's came to us and said, 'Could you help us with costumes?' and we were so happy to be able to go out and purchase them," said Joanne Lanning, a dream coordinator for the organization. "The older kids don't get as many costumes donated so that's why we focused on the teenagers."

      One such child, 13-year-old Nathan of Wesley Chapel, had just undergone surgery the night before to put in a reservoir in place for treatment of a brain tumor - his sixth surgery at the hospital since Aug. 28. He eagerly selected along black "mullet" wig, topped it off with a police hat and donned a bushy mustache.

     "We know All Children's goes above and beyond to make it easier on the kids, but when they said he was going to be here for Halloween, of course he felt a little defeated at first," remarked his mother, Jo Ellen. "But then they said, 'No, we have good things and costumes and face-painters and trick-or-tricking on the floors.' That made him a little happier and gave him something to look forward to."

     Nathan agrees that his spirits rose when he heard about the event from one of his nurses. "I was like, 'Well, at least there will be something - I can walk around and get candy and stuff like that,' " he said. "But I didn't know they'd have all these costumes. This is great."

     The auditorium was already decked out for the holiday, with a plastic black spider web dangling from the ceiling and the walls dotted with cutouts of jack-o-lanterns, ghosts and smiling bats. In the background, a boom box played the Village People classic YMCA while parents and their children perused all the holiday wear.

     "What kids do for Halloween is go trick-or-tricking, and our job is to try and let kids do what's normal in childhood," explained Child Life director Kristin Maier. "So we try to create that environment. We've had a lot of families who never they'd be able to do Halloween for their kids, assuming they were going to miss that milestone. And then they realize we're offering this and they tear up, saying, 'I never thought this was going to be possible.'

     "But in addition to that, it really brings our staff together - the hospital as a whole. This is Children's Hospital and we serve children, so everyone really gets into it."

     The person who helps make it all happen is child life specialist Dara Jackson, chairperson of the Halloween committee for the past three years. The work actually begins in August, when the committee of five or six members forms and begins making plans for the big event.

     "A lot of different pieces go into play," she says. "We have to order supplies and the goodies we give kids things for trick or treating.  The different departments can do that, or we can provide it for them. We try to have some no candy items and candy items."

     Non-candy items, such as arts and crafts, miscellaneous supplies and toys, have to ordered through one budget seven or eight weeks ahead of time. Another budget is devoted to purchasing the candy and assorted goodies. Jackson's committee also makes sure that the kids have a variety of costumes to choose from ¬- putting out word on the hospital's intranet Web site, BeACH, that employees can donate Halloween attire.

     The committee makes certain that children who can't take part in the festivities don't get left out. Bags of treats are specially prepared and delivered to those kids in their hospital rooms. "And for the second year in a row, senior leadership dresses up and helps delivers the bags," Jackson says. "Senior leadership loves it, so we're making it a tradition."

     For those kids who aren't able to eat, bags of small toys and stuffed animals are delivered in bags. Diabetic patients receive customized bags of sugar-free candy. In the end, nobody gets left out. And with peanut allergies always a concern, great care is taken to ensure that all candy is free from nuts. If individual departments prepare bags of candy to give out, each one needs to be carefully inspected by members of Child Life to make sure no peanut-based products are included.

     "It's amazing how much support we get from the hospital on this," Jackson said. "They let us spent a lot of money and guy a lot of things. It's very family-centered care. People here are always like, 'Whatever you need, let us know." Everybody is great."

     It's a sentiment that would get no argument Wednesday from a happy group of hospital trick-or-treaters.

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