Dec. 13, 2013

By Lauren Chval `13

The evening of Dec. 12th is still 13 days from Christmas, but you wouldn’t know it from the inside of the north dome in the Joyce Center. Kids–both college-age and of elementary school–sport face-painted red noses like Rudolph, frost Christmas cookies and decorate ornaments. Excited chatter erupts after someone announces that a special visitor will be arriving in half an hour. Could it be Santa?

The festivities are special for reasons beyond Christmas; it is the annual Pediatric Christmas Party, put on by the athletic department and Student Athlete Advisory Council, and held for the pediatric cancer patients of Memorial Hospital and Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center.

Student Welfare and Development is the office behind the planning of the event, which has been going on for 17 years. Administrative assistant Dawn Mays helped plan the event but says it is even closer to her heart for a personal reason: her niece, Tatum Gumpf, daughter of head softball coach Deanna Gumpf, is a cancer survivor and started coming to the party with the Memorial kids during her treatment.

“I know how much it means to my niece and her family to come every year,” Mays says. “We’ve got 90-some families here, and they connect with so many people on that level, just having fun with the kids. The kids get to see them not as these athletes way up here at Notre Dame, but just as fun people to play with. Especially when they’re going through such a tough time. And they get to connect at a real person level.”

Mays adds that the night isn’t just about the kids from Memorial–she suspects that the student-athletes get just as much out of the experience as the kids do.

Sophomore Casey Africano would be one to agree with her. As softball players, Africano and her team witnessed the battle of Tatum and her mom, their coach, and try to stay involved in the fight against cancer.

At the party, Africano has donned a Santa hat and the title “Santa’s Helper” for the evening. She pulls one of the shyer little girls to the table the softball team has set up for decorating cookies. Later, when Santa arrives, she’ll announce his entrance.

“This is one of my favorite events,” she confesses in between helping to frost cookies. “I absolutely love seeing the kids when they come in. They’re so overwhelmed with how much is going on and all the fun things that they can do. And the fact that they get to interact with the student-athletes is awesome because we’re role models to them, and I think it’s more rewarding for us, actually, to see them so happy and let loose from all the craziness that they have to deal with on a daily basis. I’m glad that we can do this for them.”

Each team is in attendance for the party and contributes some sort of activity to the party. Men’s lacrosse and men’s tennis team up to run a game of musical chairs so that the kids can be active and move around. Volleyball has set up a station for creating Christmas cards. Men’s golf has set up a wildly popular one-hole miniature golf course.

Graduate student Tom Knight says that the camaraderie between the sports is one of the best things about the Pediatric Christmas Party. There is a sense of togetherness in the room, and the basketball player remarks how great it is to have everyone support one cause.

“It allows people from the community to come see what Notre Dame is about,” Knight explains. “A lot of people may see us on the field or read about us in the paper, but they don’t really know us. This allows people to get to know us and see what we’re about, and it gives us a chance to give back here, which is what we really want to do.”

At 7 p.m., Africano taps the microphone to tell everyone that Santa has arrived, and in he walks along with two elves. A line of kids eager to tell Santa what they want immediately forms. As they wait, senior runner Kelly Curran dances with a little girl on her hip to the Christmas music playing over the loudspeakers.

Junior David Lowe is the SAAC community service co-chair and a member of the men’s golf team. As he watches the kids try their hand at makeshift put-put, he talks about all of the future events that SAAC is planning for the rest of the year.

This one, though, is a certain kind of extraordinary, involving all of the student-athletes during the magic of the Christmas season.

“The spirit of this time of year is all about giving back and giving back to the community,” he says. “There’s no better time to do it. It’s pretty special.”