On a crowded dance floor, pulsing with thumping beats and lively moves, the moment unfolded in a scene of unscripted fun and spontaneous unity. A handful of young boys wearing hipster shades began an impromptu conga line and, in a matter of seconds, dozens of other kids joined the locomotive formation, weaving around the room to the blaring tune Come On Ride the Train.
In that magical instant of the first All Children’s Homecoming dance last Saturday night, patients shared much more than the personal battles they have fought so bravely.
They shared a sudden rush of independence from the serious, in some cases life-threatening, conditions that changed their worlds – all while linked hands-to-shoulders with other kids like themselves, gleefully cutting loose on a night that a welcome feeling of normalcy filled the air.
Many were riding a collective train to an exciting, new destination: a homecoming gala, and one that pulled out all the stops along the way.
For patients who missed the chance to attend their own school fall or spring bashes – or who simply felt too nervous or uncomfortable to go – this dance literally came to them, melting away inhibitions and obstacles.
Children who didn’t know one another were pulled to the dance floor to become part of a jumping, gyrating, mass of energy, punctuated at times by the hilarious sight of a young boy showing off his moves with his head covered by a rubber monkey mask.
The festivities transpired in the ECC conference room, completely transformed into a stunning ballroom light in warm shades of blue and purple. Dubbed “An Evening Under the Stars,” the theme was underscored with cardboard stars dangling overhead in honor of the real stars of the show: the kids.
No detail was spared to make it a night extra special. There was the white, storybook carriage and black stretch limo that greeted children and their families as they arrived for the 7-10 p.m. event, providing perfect settings for prom-like photos. And there was the V.I.P. red “carpet” made of colored paper that led the crowd beneath a glittering archway as cameras snapped shots of the scene and video cameras rolled.
“It’s like we have our own paparazzi out there,” exclaimed Tony Colton, a Sarasota 15-year-old who had his final chemotherapy treatment for clear cell sarcoma in his kidneys days earlier, and is now cancer free.
He arrived with Pinellas Park 15-year-old Amber Mohn, who underwent treatment at All Children’s with Tony the past two years. “I went to my homecoming last year and this looks a lot better,” she said, smiling as she gazed at the glitzy sight around her.
“This is just so cool – I’m so glad I came,” added heart transplant patient Shavon Greene, a 19-year-old from St. Petersburg whose life was saved at All Children’s. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. But a carriage and a limo? That took me totally by surprise. And with all those people taking pictures at the red carpet, it feels like Hollywood. It’s amazing.”
More than six months of hospital-wide planning supervised by the Child Life department went into making the evening a reality. The effort was driven by a small army of staffers and a volunteer force of some 100 coordinated by Brittany Nelms. Donors from throughout the Tampa Bay area gladly got into the act, providing formal dance outfits, party food, desserts, makeup and hair styling services, formal portrait shots and a fun photo booth, the lively tunes of D.J. Fresh (well known for spinning hits at Tropicana Field during Rays games), and much more.
As they walked the red carpet, the children turned to the left and into a wonderland of entertainment that far exceeded anything they’d imagined, and the parents turned to the right and into a lounge that allowed them to visit, enjoy their own spread of food and beverages – and watch their children on a big screen having a much-needed blast via a live feed from next door.
It all began as a simple idea that everyone fell in love without hesitation.
“Some of the Child Life staff were sitting at lunch and just brain-storming different ideas of things we could do this year for the patients and families,” said Child Life director Kristin Maier. “They came in my office and said, ‘We have an idea – you’re going think we’re crazy. But we really think it would be great for the kids.’
“They mapped out their vision and I said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s write a business plan, take it to senior leadership to see if we can get it approved.’ And everybody was for it. We’ve been able to form a great team to bring this whole thing together.”
Long before the dancing began, the team was hard at work on the details of a dream.
Meeting after committee meeting formed a rock-solid foundation for the dance, ensuring everything possible would be done to make it a night to remember.
Maier and Child Life Clinical Coordinator Holly Ott enlisted help from such hospital departments as dietary, safety, nursing, maintenance, risk management, volunteer services, as well as the All Children’s Foundation and the Development Council. The anticipation began a month ago as patients picked out formal outfits that had been donated by community patrons.
Meanwhile, Speech and Hearing Director Therese Montanari and Physical Therapy / Occupational Therapy Director Maggie Reilly focused on the their roles planning the theme and décor. They came up with the “stars” theme, found a prom web site to order the cardboard decorations, and envisioned the inviting color scheme and drapes across the ceiling.
“Maggie and I got together after hearing everybody’s visions and kind of just put it together on a piece of paper,” Montanari said. “And then we’d go back to the group and people would say, ‘Oh, you should have a star balloon when you come in.’ ”
That job fell to Robin Copes, Retail Services Director, who got a crew together to assemble a stunning star balloon archway – tied to together by nylon fishing string and held to the floor by cinder blocks, items provided by her husband. At the same time, Reilly focused on the physical comfort of the patients, deciding that a 15-by-15-foot dance floor should be expanded to a larger size:
“We thought our kids might need a little more space because they might have sensory issues with being too close to one another,” she explained. “And there might be kids in wheelchairs, so there had to be enough room for them to get around.”
Disco balls and strobe lights were also ruled out, in case they might cause problems in patients prone to seizures. And a lounge area away the dance floor was created for any kid needed a break from the stimulation.
Then there was the question of which children to invite. Should it just be acute-care patients? What about rehab patients? “Maggie and I felt that there were kids who come for rehab who probably don’t get to experience their own homecoming,” Montanari said. “Some kids have cerebral palsy or autism. Some are profoundly deaf. So we expanded the list to include both the acute-care kids and the patients in the outpatient rehab population.”
And the female invitees got to enjoy one of the highlights of the day, showing up during the afternoon to have their hair, makeup and nails done by professional cosmetologists who donated their time. A wide-open room of the OCC Building became a bustling beauty spa. A steady stream of girls showed up, many bringing a friend – or a whole group of friends – to get the full advance treatment for the dance.
One such girl was 17-year-old Audra Dick, who drove to the hair and makeup session from Lakeland with good friend Kelsey Smith. Diagnosed with systemic lupus in May, Audra’s life has been turned upside down. An active athlete and high academic achiever at Lakeland High’s Harrison School for the Arts, she put on 35 pounds due to swelling when she became ill. Now she endures grueling rounds of chemotherapy that has left her feeling weakened and often sick to her stomach. Unfortunately, the steroids she takes make her hungry, compounding the nausea.
But Audra wasn’t going to miss this day and couldn’t believe what awaited her. “I honestly didn’t expect anything like this,” she said, moments after having her hair done. “I had no idea. This is awesome.”
Her mother, Laura, explained that Audra didn’t want to go to her own homecoming this year due to her changed appearance: “She said, ‘People will make fun of me,’ but this gives her a safe environment with other kids going through similar experiences.“
Andrew Herbert, a 12-year-old from St. Petersburg, came to the session to accompany his “date” for the dance, 13-year-old cousin Ashlyn. Andrew, on the list for a kidney transplant, was excited about the idea of the dance, but apprehensive about not finding someone to go with, so his cousin stepped in and drove down from Crystal River with her grandmother. “I think he’s really looking forward to it now,” said his mother, Jennifer Smith.
So was 14-year-old Luisa Osorio, who brought her parents, younger sister and a handful of friends. Luisa has been receiving chemo treatments for a brain tumor, forcing her to miss one day of school each week. She has been counting the days to the dance since the invitation arrived in the mail a month ago, and was giddy over having her hair and makeup done professionally.
“This is going to be Luisa’s first big dance,” said her father, Oscar. “It really helps keep her mind off of what she’s going through. It’s wonderful.”
Up on the stage, D.J. Fresh was spinning one dance hit after the next – Rihanna’s Please Don’t Stop the Music, Bruno Mars’ Locked Out of Heaven, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Kenny Loggins’ Footloose, the latter a most fitting choice given the feet shuffling and sliding on the parquet squares.
Soon, he yelled to the homecoming crowd, “Are you guys ready? Then let’s go crazy!!”
With that, free-form pandemonium ensued on the dance floor with the Harlem Shake.
D.J. Fresh, a.k.a Doug Hensel, was having as good a time as the kids. When a friend of his, Chrissy McWilliams of the All Children’s Foundation, had asked him if he would volunteer to handle the deejay duties, Hensel gladly accepted.
“I knew it was for a great cause and that it would be blast,” he said as his sound system rocked the room. “It’s their homecoming slash prom slash time to just let loose. It’s tremendous seeing all these happy, smiling faces. You’ve got girls wearing boas, a boy wearing a crazy monkey mask. It’s great.”
The boy in the mask was 11-year-old Jonathan Frederick of New Port Richey, who attended the event in a show of support for 13-year-old sister Cindy, who has been undergoing chemotherapy at All Children’s. While his sister danced with friends, Jonathan explained that he had borrowed the mask from the Fotos-R-Fun photo booth across the room and jumped in among the dancers to add some laughs.
“This night is off the wall,” he said. “I just thought there would be a few tables and punch. But this is a lot more than that!”
In the front of the dance floor, 21-year-old Isabel McKinney, who has Williams Syndrome and comes to ACH for physical therapy, set the pace with some high-energy footwork. Later, she was one of several recruits to call the winning number in raffle drawings for iPod shuffles, Nanos or movie tickets.
The sunglass-wearing, conga-line kids kept the cool dance moves coming all evening long. The star of the group was 12-year-old Aiden Hawk, a longtime member of the All Children’s family who underwent a liver transplant as a baby and fought through many difficult problems. He brought along a posse of pals and old teammates from Northeast Little League in St. Petersburg. One of his friends, Owen Uber, provided an assessment of his longtime buddy: “He’s brave.” And on this night, Aiden was having a blast. “This has been a great experience,” he proclaimed.
For 19-year-old Morgan Lopez of Palm Harbor, the dance was every bit of that and more. She suffers from autoimmune disease that has kept her isolated. She missed all of her high school dances, so Saturday night carried special meaning. “This is all the dances I wasn’t able to go to all wrapped up in one,” she said, seated in a wheelchair. Her escort had to cancel due to a conflict at the last second, so Child Life specialist Katie McGinnis stepped in as her “date” and wheeled Morgan around the dance floor.
“This has meant the world to her,” said her mother, Audrey. “It’s one of the few social events Morgan has been able to look forward to in a very long time.”
She was just one of the countless patients who danced to their heart’s content, forgetting the pain and challenges they face daily, if only for a little while. As the night wound down, D.J. Fresh packed the floor once more with the rousing Journey anthem, Don’t Stop Believing. The kids danced and sang along.
And nearby, Child Life’s Ott, who played a key role in pulling everything together, reflected on the memorable evening.
“It means so much,” she said. “It’s so filling in my heart to see these kids having truly the best time of their life. That’s what we had hoped for, and to see it play out like this is just inspiring and amazing.”
In the background, the dance floor pulsed away to a beat of happiness and hope.
(Check out our photo album for more photos)