It’s A “Wonderland” Life: New Toy Tradition at All Children’s Gives Parents A Helping Hand

Wonderland at ACH
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Beatrice Paxson could barely believe her eyes Sunday morning when she entered the big room in the All Children's Hospital Outpatient Care Center.

Before her were a dozen rows of tables, each piled with every kind of gift a kid could dream of - or any parent could possibly expect to find without a trip to the nearest Toys "R" Us.

Welcome to Wonderland.

The first annual event at All Children's - designed to ensure that patients will get an array of cool presents picked by their own parents - couldn't have gone any better in its inaugural run Sunday and Monday.

All you had to do was ask Beatrice.

"I walked through that door and it was like heaven," she said. "I was just floored."

Beatrice and husband Mike didn't imagine there was any way they'd have time to doing any Christmas shopping this year, given the events of this past week. They've spent every day since Dec. 17 in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with their newborn daughter, Diane, who was transported from the family's home in Fort Myers by helicopter with a heart problem, among other issues.

While worrying about their baby, they've also fretted that there wasn't enough time - or money in their budget - to get the one present their older daughter, Bebe, wanted more than anything for Christmas: a popular TV pillow pet known as a Dream Lite.

But as Beatrice made her way around the room, assisted by one of the many volunteer shopping helpers, she saw it: a plastic box containing Perky the Penguin, one of the furry Dream Lite toys that Bebe has been begging for.

"When I saw it, I almost started crying," she said. "Because every time she sees a commercial for it, she's like, 'Mommy, that's what I want for Christmas!' "

Having recently lost their health insurance, the Paxson's weren't even sure they could afford spending $30 on the special toy this year. But they got that and more - including a Walmart gift card to buy a much-needed baby car seat - thanks to the Wonderland's eye-popping Toy Shop and countless community donations that stocked it to the hilt.

Beatrice wasn't the only one tearing up. So was Child Life Department director Kristin Maier, after she and her staff finished setting up the toy room the night before the event.

"It just felt so right thinking 200-plus families will come in here and have what they need to make their holiday special," she said.

After becoming head of Child Life this past June, Kristin immediately began thinking of creating the Wonderland event at All Children's. For many years, kids have received donated presents for the holidays picked by the staff. But the idea of a special toy shop - one that would allow parents to select gifts and present them to their surprised children - seemed too fun and rewarding not to try.

Other hospitals around the country have staged similar programs with great results. So in July, Kristin got the ball rolling with a task force that included staff and parent. She consulted with counterparts at other hospitals to learn the best ways to make the Wonderland a success the first time out.

"It evolved from thinking about how to most honor our families in a way that they celebrate their traditions and their holidays," she explained. "And knowing that we're trying to meet the needs of all children, not just children who do the things the way that I do them or you do them. If they want, they can be Santa. Maybe they just want to take the presents back up to the room to give them out. Or if there are siblings they need to shop for, they can. This event becomes about them - not about us. And that's what it really should be."

To make things work, the staff settled on a system that allotted seven tickets to parents of a hospitalized child. The toys would be divided according to price range - with items of less expense going for one ticket and the most expensive merchandise requiring five tickets. If adult shoppers couldn't find something they liked from the mountains of goodies, they could use their tickets to purchase gift cards at establishments that included Target, Walmart, Publix and all manner of restaurants.

That way, everybody was guaranteed of finding something nice to brighten spirits on Christmas Eve or morning. Simply the sight of all the toys made many beleaguered parents feel better - knowing that a burning issue of how to find time to shop for presents had been completely taken care of by the hospital.

Not surprisingly, the first toy to go when doors opening Sunday at 11 a.m. was an X-Box 360 for five tickets. But there were still plenty of top-of-the-line gifts waiting for a home an hour into the event, with parents lining up outside the spacious hallway until their arrived to be escorted into the toy shop with a helper.

Among the five-ticket catches: an Esteban acoustic guitar and instruction kit, a Precious Pearls bicycle and a VCR/CD player.  Every table was marked with signs that indicated how many tickets the items cost, so shoppers could move through the room with ease. In addition to toys, books, CDs and DVDs abounded, along with colorful blankets, umbrella strollers - and a section devoted only to parents of babies in the NICU.

And directly across the hallway was the busiest Wonderland place of all: the wrapping room. Dozens of volunteers, many of whom have been wrapping presents for All Children's patients for more than 20 years. Once parents had made their selections, they simply walked in, handed the gifts to the helpers and let them to their magic. There was even a table manned by several volunteers busy installing batteries for any toys that needed them.

One veteran wrapper, Patti Carter, was thrilled with the new format because it allowed enjoyable and meaningful interaction with grateful parents.

"I've been doing this 22 years and I love this new way of doing things," she said. "We used to go to the auditorium and the gifts were brought to us. We wrapped them up but never interacted with parents that way. So I think this is a great way to do it. I've offered to let them do the wrapping themselves, but they all say noooo."

In addition to presents, every parent left with a survey from Child Life asking for feedback or suggestions on how to improve the event for next year. Antonio McCree of Orlando and his wife Pamela had nothing but glowing remarks to offer.

Their young son, Antonio Jr., had recently undergone successful heart surgery and the parents had hopes of being able to go home with him on Christmas Eve. One way or the other, they'll be going home with all the toys they hoped for.

"When we walked in and saw exactly what was going on, it was mind-blowing," Antonio Sr. said. "I saw hard times and tragedy when I went to New Orleans soon after Katrina to do demolition work. And just to know that they're doing this kind of thing for the kids here - it was overwhelming for me and my wife. This is totally a blessing, a miracle blessing. You couldn't ask for more. Just the experience we've had from the time that we got here up until this time - I would honestly say that there's nothing like it."

Nearby, Maki Stephens watched the last of her presents get wrapped. She and her husband Jimmy have a baby boy in the NICU who was born three months prematurely but could be going home any day - accompanied by a big bag of baby stuff.

"This was very helpful, very thoughtful and very organized," Maki said.

At another table, Mike Paxson had rejoined wife Beatrice. They still couldn't get over the sights that surrounding them.

"It's awesome, everything's been awesome," he said. "Beatrice was saying before this, 'We're never going to find anything when we get out of the hospital.' But we even found the DVD Bebe loves." He holds a copy of it: How To Train Your Dragon.

 "We never expecting anything like this," he adds. "Just to see it is totally amazing."

 A real-life Toy Story with an All Kids twist.

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