Jimmy Fund Clinic Winter Festival is celebration and support for pediatric patient families

Judging by the smiles, riding a mechanical reindeer is a great diversion from cancer. So are Santa and his elves, fluffy bunnies, and an endless array of cookies, candy, and crafts – all of which were enjoyed by around 800 pediatric cancer patients, survivors, and their families at the Jimmy Fund Clinic Winter Festival earlier this month.

For families who have completed treatment, the annual event at the Newton Marriott was a chance to rejoice; for those still being treated for cancer, it provided a respite, and an opportunity to connect with others.

“We reconnected today with a family whose daughter was diagnosed two months ago with the same cancer that our son, Nick, had, and I told them, ‘Look at us, you can do it too,’” said Lisa Cleary, whose 4-year-old, Nicholas, completed his protocol last summer. “This is a day that puts everything in perspective; you remember what you’ve been through, and can hopefully serve as an inspiration for others.”

Kathleen Houlahan, RN, MSN, nurse director of Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, was among the staff members enjoying the festivities and checking in with patients. Events like this, she said, are invaluable and unique. “It brings everyone together,” said Houlahan. “It is a memorable experience for all.”

Bows on bald heads and wheelchairs at the buffet table drew no curious stares, and even those old enough to fully understand the seriousness of what unites them enjoyed the occasion.

“I like seeing all the people who helped me through this,” said a 16-year-old brain tumor survivor and high school junior. “They were there when I needed support, and I want them to see me now.”

Staff enjoy the chance to reconnect in a spirited setting, too. Sean O’Donnell, a pediatric stem cell transplant coordinator when not moonlighting as one of Santa’s elves, said he enjoyed greeting families while handing out some of the 800 presents donated by TJX Companies, Inc, for patients and siblings.

“Usually, parents bring patients to appointments, so seeing so many brothers and sisters, everybody smiling, makes it extra special,” said O’Donnell. “It’s a great gift for our patient families.”

Making sure everything ran on time – including the rideable train in the parking lot, where passengers enjoyed hot chocolate donated by Dunkin’ Donuts – was Lisa Scherber, director of patient and family programs at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s. She has headed the event for more than 20 years, watching it become a beloved Jimmy Fund Clinic tradition.

“Every year, I feel so fortunate to be a part of something so incredibly beautiful, surrounded by so many of our Jimmy Fund families feeling pure joy,” said Scherber, whose Reindeer on a Ride team in the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon directs its fundraising to help support the winter festival. “There is just something about Santa, no matter what you believe. On this day, we all believe in the magic and hope he brings to these incredible children – who need it the most.”

Before heading home Sunday, Scherber and some elves stopped in at Boston Children’s Hospital with gifts for Dana-Farber inpatients. Another dose of diversion, straight from the North Pole.