Santa, with some help, visits sick kids


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Six-year-old Abigail Linville lay in her plastic hospital bed, a pink leopard-print blanket pulled up around her neck. Her sister, Emma, stood frozen in the dimly lit room. Following Emma's gaze, Abigail turned her head to peer at the open door. They heard bells jingling.

Through the lit opening strode a tall, round, man. Two full bags of presents were clenched in his hands, and a thick black belt cinched his unmistakable red coat around his waist. Santa Claus had arrived.

Abigail and Emma were just two of the 80 children Santa visited Wednesday at the University of Iowa Children's Hospital for the 30th annual Christmas tour.

"We just love to see the reactions," said Sharon Witt, who helped organize the event put on by six eastern Iowa Lions Clubs. "Some of those kids probably won't get home for Christmas, and for some of them, this might be the only Christmas that they have."

For the past three decades, Lions Club Santas have been delivering personalized bags of toys to children at the Children's Hospital filled with coloring books, stuffed animals, and toys.

"As you can imagine, it just brightens their spirits at a time like this when they are having all kinds of pokes and do not really understand what's going on," said Emily Hazelwood, a senior childlife specialist at the hospital. "So seeing Santa Claus, it makes things normal, it is more like home."

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And for some of the children, the hospital has become a second home.

Two-year-old Will Olsen has spent four months of his life battling Stage 3 liver cancer. His father, Brian Olsen, carried him down the hospital hallway when they were greeted by a hearty "ho ho ho," and a bag of toys.

"It really is his first exposure to Santa," Olsen said. "Just the sense of it gives him a diversion."

Will's first meeting with Santa went well and ended with a fist bump.

For many children, that moment with Santa is a highlight of their stay.

"If they have been here for a few weeks, they kind of have missed out on the whole Christmas atmosphere," Hazelwood said. "So seeing Santa Clause might be the first time you see that kid smile."

Dave Roling, one of the two Lions Club members who donned a red suit, said he was filling in for someone else. And he was glad he did.

"This is better than the real thing, seeing those smiles," he said. "Santa never gets to see many of the smiles, and he gets to see them today."

The Children's Hospital Christmas Tour began 30 years ago with bags of fruit and candy, but today, it has grown to a massive event. Organizers estimated around $4,000 worth of gifts were given to the children, all raised by or donated to the Lions Clubs.

While the event requires both time and money, club member Jim Burken said it is well worth it.

"It lights them up," he said. "For some of the kids, this is the only gift they are going to get."

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