Jan. 11, 2016

by Renee Peggs

Together with the pediatric hematology-oncology clinics at Beacon Health Systems (formerly Memorial Hospital) and Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, the student-athletes of the University of Notre Dame incarnated the mystery of Christmas – being in human form, in unassuming garb, bringing tidings of comfort and joy, for the sake of those often overlooked.

Probably few if any of them were shepherds, but they were townspeople, the beneficiaries of the Christmas miracle that took place Thursday evening, December 10th. About 40 children who are receiving treatment for various cancers (plus 200-some family members and relatives) journeyed from around Michiana to see what had been promised.

There wasn’t a baby in a manger. The weather outside was anything but frightful – it had been up in the 50s that whole week – but the scene inside the Joyce Center’s North Dome was so delightful.

Santa and his elves held center court, surrounded by a bustling workshop of endless food, festivity, fun and games: PVC-pipe putt-putt (courtesy of men’s and women’s golf), inflatables, batting cages, ball tosses, snowman bowling, cookie decorating, face painting, musical chairs and everybody’s favorite Spin-a-Prize (hosted by the baseball team).

“We bring the most energy and that’s a fact,” declared senior baseball co-captain James Nevant, of his team’s Christmas party activity reputation.

Lane Richards, also a senior co-captain, added, “We actually ran out of prizes pretty early tonight so we’ve had to really step it up in other ways, just like we do during a game. To do for these kids what we do for each other, as student-athletes at Notre Dame, is a really special opportunity.”

Nevant concluded, “Showing our gratitude by giving back of our time like this is just what we do, because of who we are here at Notre Dame.”

Johnathan Franklin, community relations coordinator for ND’s Student Welfare and Development, offered some additional perspective.

“The student-athletes are not mandated to be here. This is totally of their own accord, right before finals begin, and we have about 250 of them out here tonight from all 26 teams except hockey which has an away game. That’s amazing and says a lot about the caliber and character of our student-athletes.”

Senior cheerleader Ryan Lopez insisted that “getting to put on this party is one of the best things all year about being a student-athlete. I love this night, and it’s gotten bigger every year.”

Lopez, covered in glitter and wearing an ugly sweater, declined to put additional physical manifestation to his sentiment. “No, I cannot do a series of flips; unfortunately, I’m not that kind of cheerleader.”

Apparently there was a distinction among kinds of elves as well, though this was not immediately clear.

“Awww, no, you wanna talk to Brendon the Elf,” deflected another elf who appeared was just as legitimate as Brendon. “They actually recruited him special for tonight; I just happened to have this costume at home, but Brendan is the real deal.”

Brendon the Elf may or may not be a men’s tennis player and finance major – “you should see Santa’s portfolio!” but he had no trouble articulating his essential job function.

“Being an Elf carries a lot of responsibility because of the way the kids see me. There’s this expectation and I work really hard all year to be able to bring the magic for this night especially.”

He was less forthcoming about his hometown.

“Well, I’m from the North Pole, of course, like everyone who works for Santa, but… I may have spent a lot of time in Salt Lake City, Utah…”

Brendon’s employer, the Man in Red himself, was similarly reticent, though certainly jolly.

“The most important thing you need to know is that it’s an honor to be here with these children and give them such a fabulous evening with their families. And the second thing is, Notre Dame is the best University in the world. Go- ho- ho- Irish!”

Becky Wachs, child-life specialist for pediatric hematology-oncology at Memorial, expressed her own delight at the sense of the real presence of Christmas made possible by so many willing hearts.

“Notre Dame and the student-athletes make all the difference to our kids and their families,” exclaimed Wachs, this year’s event coordinator. “They don’t get out much because of their immune-suppression and it’s hard for their families to carry on with what used to be their normal activities. To come to ND and enjoy all these wonderful people and activities, especially at Christmastime, is just extraordinary for our patients and their families.”

Each child received a free winter hat from Love Your Melon, an apparel brand created by college students from Minnesota.

LYM central regional manager Riley Chelski explained, “Love Your Melon is a collegiate initiative based in Minneapolis with the mission to put a hat on the head of every child in this country who is battling cancer. Hats come in either a cuff style or beanie and are made entirely in the U.S. of special fibers that won’t make children’s heads itch or sweat. We also sell our hats, and the proceeds from sales help fund the donations of free hats to pediatric cancer patients. The other 50 percent of our profits are donated to cancer research and advocacy programs that offer financial support to patients’ families.

“This is a part-time job for me,” Chelski continued, “as the Love Your Melon captain at ND, and I also manage crews on campuses throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. But I am really proud to be involved with Love Your Melon and to be part of this event here tonight.”

The night definitely wasn’t silent, but it was holy, made sacred by selfless student-athletes for these special children.