ORANGE – Some of the 100 or so children who packed the courtyard
at one of St. Joseph Hospital’s campus buildings Saturday live with
their families in motels or with their moms in a battered woman’s shelter.
Some have a parent going through cancer treatment. And some just needed
a bit of help to make the holidays brighter.
The kids came from across Orange County with their families or onboard
a free shuttle to join in dozens of projects, games and giveaways set
up by volunteers at the hospital campus in Orange.
Kathy Berger, who directs St. Joseph’s rehabilitation center, helped
launch the event 18 years ago.
“We just want it to be one day where they don’t have to worry
about all the things they’re burdened with,” she said.
Before families even entered the courtyard, they could hear echoes of half
a dozen hammers tapping tiny nails into little wooden toolboxes.
Patricia Lattanzio and a group of volunteers from The Home Depot store
on Tustin Avenue brought tools and toolbox kits, plus stickers to decorate
the boxes for Christmas.
A balloon artist cranked out inflatable butterflies and helicopters. Stations
offered kids a chance to bowl or play basketball, or build gingerbread
houses and toy soldiers.
An hour into the party, 5-year-old Alex Fernandez of Garden Grove had already
played every game and was going back for more.
Along with taking home the crafts they’ve made, every kid left with
a bag of toiletries, a backpack with school supplies, an $80 Target gift
card, treasures for their mom and two free movie tickets.
Ten-year-old Michael Diaz had the most fun at the ladder toss. But another
activity stood out as his favorite.
“Getting my mom a gift,” he said, smiling toward his mother
as she helped his 3-year-old brother putt a golf ball.
Crystal Diaz, 32, is having health issues, making things tight for her,
her husband and seven children. She said she was so grateful a friend
encouraged her to come out from Garden Grove.
“It gives you a chance to spend time with your kids and to see smiles
on their faces,” she said.
Harvey Williams’ four stepchildren each got fitted for new shoes.
Then three of them settled at a craft table while one of his stepdaughters
got a manicure from volunteers at the nail station.
Guests of all ages gathered to take pictures with the Laker Girls, who
came out thanks to one of the physical therapists being a former member
of the group herself.
Another popular attraction were the eight therapy dogs roaming the courtyard
in Christmas sweaters or reindeer antlers.
But the highlight, of course, was Santa Claus, who handed each child a
James Lynch – whose wife, Rose Tam, is clinical coordinator at the
hospital’s rehabilitation center – has played the role for
the past 15 years. By now, he can get the red suit, black boots and white
beard all on in under 10 minutes.
“Once you see how happy they are, it’s easy to get into character,” he said.
The day is filled with joy, he said, but also some tough moments when kids
share their Christmas wishes.
“They’ll say, ‘I want my mom and dad to come home’
or ‘I just want something for my little sister,’” he said.
It’s heartbreaking, he said. But also serves as a reminder for why
the tradition has continued for 18 years.