Grace's mom

"Jamie’s was our only outing and outlet for three years. It gave us connections with others we will cherish for life. Jamie's made everything that seemed so very wrong in the world at that time OK."
—Grace's mom

Thursday
Oct222009

Party for sick children teaches meaning of Christmas

Calgary Herald, December 2008

Photograph by : Dean Bicknell, Calgary Herald

Above: Alainna Clarke, 3, From Left, Taiden Clarke, 2, and five- year-old Abrianna Clarke sit on harvey the hound's lap during a christmas party at mPAk Plastics for Jamie's Preschool children. As he writhes on the floor with his new best friend, an oversized, stuffed dog that's bigger than him, it's obvious that Ethan Duncan has been struck by cupid's arrow.

"I really love you, Dimples."

But love at first sight makes us all do silly things. We see the object of our affections, and--wham!--we're down for the count.

At least that's what happened to yours truly when she made her acquaintance Wednesday with this five-year-old fireball in a Flames jersey.

It's hard not to succumb to the black-haired boy's charms, as he runs around embracing kids, adults and his favourite other dog in the world, Harvey the Hound.

As an antidote to the economic and political blues grasping us grown-ups these days, an hour with Ethan and his buddies is the ultimate antidote. But you just might find that through your smiles, you can't help shed a tear or two.

Ethan and his dozen friends are students at Jamie's Preschool, run out of St. Andrew's Church and devoted to caring for children undergoing treatment for serious illnesses.

On Wednesday, I catch up with the rowdy bunch at a most unlikely place, an office in the city's southeast industrial district.

But MPAK Plastics, on this one day in December as it has for the past 15 years, has been transformed from an austere business environment to a place festooned with Christmas decorations, a decked-out tree, a room full of stuffed animals and a crowd of smiling adults who join in on the fun with the kids.

That's because the company's president, Gerry Darichuk, also fell in love with these kids 15 years ago, when school founder Sheri Ewing came to speak to Darichuk and his fellow Rotary Club of Calgary North members. Her son Jamie, now 25 years old, was diagnosed with cancer as a toddler.

"These kids are so precious, and they're compromised," says Darichuk, who with longtime friend and fellow Rotarian Skip Gibson has been a driving force to keep the school afloat.

"We often cry when they have their party, but they're just all smiles," says Darichuk.

Ewing, who started up the preschool in 1986, says the annual party is her favourite event of the holiday season.

"The best part of it is watching them not feeling sorry for themselves," she says. "They live in the moment -- something we all needed to be reminded to do."

While they sing Christmas carols, sit on Santa's lap and dance around with excitement, you'd be hard pressed to pick these kids out of crowd of healthy children, other than the fact that some of them--like Ethan--have patches of hair missing due to their latest round of chemotherapy.

Their lives, though, are anything but typical.

"She wouldn't see Santa at the mall, because we never go to the mall at all," says Katie Marshall, mom to six-year-old Willa, who had a bone-marrow transplant last year.

"It's a lonely experience having a sick child; without this, we would feel so isolated."

Although the kids are nothing but smiles, giggles and the odd squeal, the adult volunteers and friends are often overcome with emotion as they watch the little ones' joy at seeing Santa burst through the front doors.

Stephanie Duncan shares in their occasional bouts of tears.

"Just to see him like this, I can't even describe," says Ethan's mom as she wipes her eyes.

Two years ago, she took her otherwise healthy boy to the doctor, concerned about a lump on his neck. It turned out to be neuroblastoma, a common cancer found in young children.

"He was Stage 4, the worst," says Stephanie, who knows her boy, who just finished treatment a month ago, isn't out of the woods yet. "But today, we're not going there."

She watches her adorable Ethan as he hugs his best friend Levi, a 21/2-year-old who just finished chemotherapy for leukemia.

Duncan says she just wants to follow her kid's lead and keep sadness and suffering at bay for at least this one day.

"You realize when something like this happens, that the things you thought were important in life . . . about 99 per cent of them aren't.

"But this, this little party, is important."

Liz Mackie, a teacher at Jamie's Preschool, agrees.

"It reminds you what it's all about, doesn't it?"

As this columnist leaves this very special Christmas party -- happily burdened with her new Christmas tree, whose proceeds will go to help keep Jamie's Preschool running another year --I can't help but marvel at how, once again, it's the little people who so often teach us life's biggest lessons.

Call MPAKat 403-252-4481 to make a donation or to purchase a tree.

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

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