A Day in The Life: Behind the Scenes of the 30th Annual All Children’s Telethon

The moment arrived with a wave of raucous applause and cheers that sent decibels and emotions soaring off the charts Sunday evening. It was a wild scene that blended the fever pitch of a Super Bowl victory with an election-night headquarters celebration - all in the name of children.

A whopping check presented by Walmart for $986,058 pushed the total over the top just before 6:30 p.m. Sunday. An instant later, the final tally hit the big tote board for the 30th annual All Children's Telethon - a grand total of $4,154,917. And prolonged pandemonium erupted on the set inside the Education & Conference Center, hosted by the familiar News Channel 8 anchor crew of Gayle Sierens, Keith Cate, Steve Jerve and, in a surprise return after six years - on horseback, no less - Bob Hite.

CH 8 Telethon Team
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It was the culmination of months upon months of painstaking work from all corners of All Children's.

There was Stephanie Hall, the Children's Miracle Network Hospital Program Director at All Children's - marking her 25th year nurturing relationships with all of the Telethon's corporate and civic donors. There was the Emmy-winning trio of veteran Telethon producer Ann Miller, who tirelessly scripted the touching content and endless details of the show; creative services director Mike Sexton, whose colorful graphics and stirring Telethon theme song helped give the event added heart; and videographer Bill Greene, who filmed and edited the poignant pre-taped segments aired throughout the program.

And there were so many others, from ACH board members to department directors to staffers and volunteers working side by side for a common cause.

"It doesn't matter what your position or title is at the hospital with your day job," says Darrell Lee, Strategic Communications and Interactive Services Director, overseeing the Web and social media efforts from start to finish.  "When it comes to the Telethon, everyone assumes a role and gets the job done. It is an amazing event."

In this case, the combined efforts resulted in the fourth-highest Telethon contribution total ever, particularly noteworthy since there was no Taste of Pinellas this year to serve as a simultaneous fundraising catalyst.

The day was filled with distinctive sights that began to unfold well before showtime and lasted until sign-off at 6:30 p.m. Highlights ranged from the return of 28-year-old former patient Tommy Duckworth, who spent the first six years of his life in the hospital to a nostalgic, late-afternoon reunion of three Telethon titans.

Former All Children's president J. Dennis Sexton, former ACH Marketing and Foundation executive Joel Momberg and longtime show host and Channel 8 sports anchor, Dick Crippen reminisced, while rocking babies together in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in a nod to the show's roots.

It was a Telethon to remember. And here's a look at some of the behind-the-scenes - and in-front-of-the-camera - happenings that combined to make it that way.

* * *

By 6:30 a.m., the ECC has sprung to life. WFLA-Ch. 8's anchor team is busy getting set for the telecast - Gayle Guyardo sits in front of a boom, applying makeup. Rod Carter and Leigh Spann stand nearby, smiling and staying loose. In another room, the first group of volunteers who'll work the banks of phones receive final instructions. The busy pace and bright lights provide a sharp contrast to the calm, subdued hues only minutes away on the hospital's sixth floor - in the heart of the NICU.

This is where Channel 8 weekend morning anchor Yolanda Fernandez is preparing for her first live segment of the day, accompanied by a mobile production crew directed by WFLA veteran Phil Hill. Fernandez sits and chats with Amanda Fish and David Delmotte, the parents of premature boys Logan and Aden, born seven weeks premature but doing well enough to make their TV debut.

Having time to talk 15-20 minutes prior to the segment accomplishes several things. It gives Fernandez a chance to get the gist of the family's story - beyond the note cards she has been given - and it allows the parents to relax a bit in front of two TV cameras before Hill signals that the segment is live.

"That pacifier is bigger than he is," Fernandez says, smiling, as she engages the parents in conversation. The signals begin to come: "Four minutes to go ... two minutes to go ... one minute." Just then, Aden begins to cry. "Oh, you're going to start getting fussy now?" jokes his father.

At 7:37 a.m., Carter introduces the spot from the ECC set and Fernandez shifts right into gear: "Hi, good morning Rod, we're in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and I'm with the proud parents of these beautiful twin boys," she begins. The three-minute portion comes off without a hitch. The boys cooperate by not crying at all, and the parents tell Fernandez how grateful they are for the care their babies have received. "The communication is amazing," says David. "They make sure you know everything that's going on and why they're doing stuff." Adds Amanda: "It's like a second home."

Back in the ECC, the phones are already ringing steadily.

* * *

Next up for Fernandez, Hill and Co., a signature touch provided by the staff of All Children's Environmental Services department: towel animals.

A room on the seventh floor has been decked out with all manner of little white towel critters, an art perfected and practiced by the many folks who clean the hospital rooms on a daily basis.  There are bunnies, dogs, ducks, swans and turtles - even little rays in honor of the major league team in town.

EVS workers are all trained in making the cotton-based creations - a sight guests are more accustomed to seeing in cruise cabins or high-end hotel rooms than in a hospital. But the animals are a way of brightening spirits of young patients, and the staff takes great pride in going the extra terry-cloth mile to do just that.

Martha Drew, housekeeping manager, had a hard time securing an empty room for the segment because the hospital was nearly full the night before. But Room 728 opened up, so that's where the video crew heads now. Soon, two of Drew's experts join Fernandez to give her an on-air lesson - Cecilia "Cece" Barnett and Stephon Anderson - and explain the significance the animals have in the grand scheme.

"The animals are for the kids," Stephon says. "At All Children's Hospital, we are all about making sure that when they come, they get better. And we make these animals to help them feel more comfortable when they come and make them feel more at home."

Cece tells a story of a little boy staying in one of her rooms. "He was sad because he missed his dog," she explains. Cece promptly reached for several towels and, minutes later, brought a smile to the child's face by presenting him with his very own towel dog.

* * *

So it goes throughout the day. Fernandez takes viewers on a wide range of stories inside the hospital. She spends time with 16-year-old Celina Cook, recovering from a type of leukemia called AML that demands a harsher treatment plan. Celina, wearing a protective mask, talks about playing intense games of UNO with other teens - and even some of the nurses - in the game room. "I just feel very safe here because of all the supervision, always seeing how you're doing and checking in with you," she says. "And always seeing what they can do better."

A segment with two Guatemalan parents, Stephanie and Marco, and their premature baby boy showcases the All Children's International Program. Stephanie was the first mother in the program to come to All Children's and have her baby delivered at the hospital - at only 28 weeks - rather than giving birth overseas and then transporting the infant. Both parents express their gratitude for the life-saving care their baby Marco has received. Dr. Roberto Sosa joined the parents, stressing that Marco was past the most difficult time now. "Now he's eating well, and breathing by himself, so we're very happy," he says.

Then comes a trip to the Simulation Lab and an interview with Sim Center and Clinical Research Director Tina Spagnola, a tour of the Emergency Center's pediatric transport units, and a visit with pediatric emergency physician Dr. Patrick Mularoni, minutes after finishing a shift.

"How busy are Sundays here - what's your typical day like?" Ferdandez asks.

 "We've been real busy today," Dr. Mularoni responds. "I started at 6 a.m. and all day we've had a trickle of children coming in to be cared for. One of the things that's unique about our hospital is because we're a pediatric hospital, because we take care of some of the sickest kids in the area, we've seen kids from all over the place. Earlier today, I had a kid fly in on a helicopter from Cape Coral. I've seen sick children from St. Petersburg who require cancer treatment, where they have to come here for care as well. And I just got finished sewing up the chin of a little girl who cut it on the side of a swimming pool. We're busy because of the specialized care we provide."

Still, it's adorable 5-year-old Mae Parker who threatens to steal the show. Mae was adopted by her parents in a Chinese orphanage and underwent her first heart surgery in Beijing. Last Wednesday, she had an open-heart procedure at All Children's and came through with flying colors.

By Friday, she was talking up a storm and enjoying a tea party with family. And two days later, she was beaming at a pair of WFLA TV cameras, enjoying another tea party with mom Lauren and grandmother Joyce by her side. "She's doing fabulous - you'd never know she had heart surgery," Lauren says, adding that the medical staff fell in love with Mae. Though she spoke no English 15 months ago, Mae talks plenty now - and even handles the segment sign-off like a pro, following Fernandez' lead and proclaiming, "Back to you Gayle!"

Bob Hite

In fact, another showstopper will soon take center stage. Former Channel 8 anchor Hite, now retired and living the ranch life in Colorado, had saddled up during the Saturday night sneak peek of the Telethon on WFLA and started "riding" to St. Petersburg. The bit culminates with video of the popular ex-newsman on horseback as he nears All Children's - and then dismounts to enter the show in chaps and dusty cowboy boots.

It is an emotional experience for Hite, seeing many of his former co-workers for the first time in a half-dozen years since his retirement. But his eyes filled with tears, and his voice broke, as he spoke on air of his three grandchildren, all of whom have received care at All Children's.

"The Telethon has been an annual tear event for me since the beginning," Hite says in a quiet moment off the set. "Long before I had two children, much less grandchildren, you were still moved by these kids and their families - and the devotion of their parents and this hospital staff. You know, I tear up pretty easy when kids are involved - and old friends. I wouldn't have missed this for the world."

Meanwhile, being part of the Telethon holds special significance for a newcomer to the event: Jenine Rabin, Executive Vice President of the All Children's Foundation. She grew up in nearby Seminole watching Channel 8 anchor Sierens host the Telethon each year, and remembers urging her father to listen to the WFLA team and call in a pledge.

Now, joined by her two young daughters, Verity and Chance, Rabin is in the Telethon spotlight herself as the event builds toward its big finish. She stands beside Sierens, teaming up to raise money in a live interview about role of the Foundation and the vital importance of the Telethon.

"Today is one way of giving support, but we work with donors all the time who have an interest in doing something specific," Rabin says. "And we're happy to work with them to make their dream come true."

Many dreams do thanks to the contributions that pour in during the Telethon and throughout the year.

One of them is vividly depicted on screen - the story of a miracle baby and his inspiring return as a thriving adult.

* * *

For sheer power, it's hard to top the appearance of Tommy Duckworth.

Tommy with Dick CrippenTommy was born in November 1984, with much of his intestines on the outside of his belly. All Children's surgeons had to remove part of his intestines and then carefully place the rest back inside his abdomen. He spent his early childhood at All Children's, celebrating his first five Christmases here, even learning to walk by pulling a specially modified IV pole around the hospital walls.

Fittingly, Tommy is interviewed by Crippen, who had rocked him as a fragile baby in the NICU 29 years earlier. He works today as a nutritionist at St. Anthony's and gives credit to All Children's for making his journey possible.

"I'm just living life and enjoying life, and am blessed to be here," he says. "And I'm blessed to come back and share another 30 years with All Children's."

Crippen quips that he may not be around for that, then looks into the camera and says, "This is a guy that you helped. Those of you who have contributed through the years to All Children's Hospital, you gave him, literally, life."

* * *

The Telethon tour de force takes place in the kind of rocking chairs that Tommy once was comforted in.

It's where the Three ACH Amigos - Sexton, Momberg and Crippen - closed the live programming from the hospital shortly before 5:30 p.m.

Sexton, Crippen and Momberg

Momberg was the man with the idea of launching the Telethon, and did so with the blessing and help of All Children's president, Sexton. Crippen was the host who always opened the show with Sexton, rocking babies in the NICU.

"This was always my favorite part of the show, but I never got to do it until now," says Momberg, as the three enter the NICU and take their seats. "I was always jealous of those guys!"

When the cameras begin to roll, Crippen acts as emcee as Sexton and Momberg talk about how far the event has come through the years.

Sexton: "One of the great things that this has brought is a recognition around the whole region of the wonderful things we were doing way, way back - and now All Children's Hospital they have is on an international scale as far as the skills of the doctors and nurses and the research that's being done. This is what we dreamed about. People say, 'You didn't dream this much.' Well, we did. It really, fortunately, has turned out to be everything we wanted it be."

Momberg: "It's been unbelievable. Of course, this is what it's all about - the babies. We were talking earlier about 30 years, and coming back, and seeing the families and young adults who are now just phenomenal. It's just such a great feeling to come back. It's like giving birth to the Telethon - you put it together, and then you watch your child develop. Now, it's a mature Telethon. It's just beautiful."

* * *

Then comes a moment not in the script.  As the segment ends, Momberg and Sexton prepare to head back to the ECC for the big Telethon finish. That's when Sexton notices a familiar woman at the front desk of the NICU checking in about her grandson - a tiny preemie inside the NICU.

 Joel Momberg & Dennis Sexton
Dennis Sexton and Joel Momberg visit the Morris baby in the NICU
By sheer coincidence, she sat in front of him and his wife at church that same morning. The woman was wearing the official 2013 Telethon T-shirt, so the Sextons introduced themselves and learned her story. She is Kelly Demsey and had just flown in from Delaware after her daughter Amy Morris, a Ft. Myers resident, gave birth prematurely at the hospital. It was especially troubling since the daughter had two other pregnancies that ended with the babies not surviving.

Kelly explained that she was having people sign her T-shirt, and would donate a dollar during the Telethon for every signature she collected. The Sextons wished her well and soon headed for All Children's.

Now, some eight hours later, she has crossed paths again - and the former ACH president immediately recognizes her.

He calls out to her, and notices she has collected a dozen or so signatures on her shirt by now.  To help her cause, he reaches for his wallet and hands her a twenty-dollar bill. Momberg does the same. She hugs them both, then asks if they would like to see her grandson inside the NICU.

Returning to the ECC, with all its mounting excitement, can wait 10 more minutes. The two men, long the heart and soul of All Children's, follow the grandmother to an incubator. It holds newborn Roman Isaac Demsey Morris, who has a new chance at life thanks to the hospital they helped so much with the creation of the Telethon 30 years earlier.

Sexton and Momberg smile at the baby, the only sound coming from a beeping monitor nearby. The quiet room is a far cry from the excitement sweeping through the ECC several blocks away, where the tote board will soon jump another million dollars and trigger a thunderous ovation.

Away from the cameras, amid the dim lights of the nursery, the scene is as priceless as any on this day, with the hearts of a little NICU baby and the biggest of Telethons pulsing to a shared beat.

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