By Kim Walter
The hospital can seem like a bleak place to be this time of year, but community and staff members at the Winchester Medical Center did their best to bring Christmas cheer to children who had to be there.
Tanya Armstrong, Winchester Medical Center's child life coordinator, saw individuals and groups alike bring gifts, as well as the holiday spirit, to the pediatric unit in the days leading up to Christmas.
For the past 20 years, Pat and Tracey Bailey have donated a gingerbread house to the hospital, which quickly becomes the centerpiece for the pediatric unit.
"Each year they bring a new creation, and it always reminds us that Christmas is coming," Armstrong said. "It's become a tradition ... it's just wonderful."
A boy scout group from Strasburg sends in goodie bags for the children, she said. Youth groups from area churches often come to visit and pass out gifts as well.
A father and son pair have made it a habit to come to the unit, one dressed as santa and the other as a helper, and pass out gifts. They also reveal which "list" the children are on -- Armstrong said the hospitalized children always learn that they have made the "good list."
A Winchester Elks group, for the second year in a row, applied for and received two grants totaling more than $1,000, which was used to purchase not only presents for individual patients, but also items for the entire unit. Armstrong said an air hockey table, a play kitchen, a ride-on tractor and 20 DVDs were provided through the group.
One young man, now in his 20s, was in the hospital for Christmas when he was three years old. Armstrong said to this day he comes with gifts because of "how well he was treated during his stay."
With the recent tragedy in Newtown, Ct., Armstrong said people were left wanting to give back.
"We had so many folks calling in, asking what they could do," she said. "They just didn't want the children to be without anything, especially on Christmas."
On Christmas Eve night, a man was on his way home to see family in another state, but got caught up in traffic. He decided to stop at the Medical Center, and proceeded to drop off a bag full of gifts he wanted to go to any child hospitalized there.
"It is so amazing to see these random acts of kindness," Armstrong said. "Even in this economy, folks around here realize that other people are worse off than they are."
Those donating also did a good job of respecting safety precautions in the pediatric unit, Armstrong added. Most people called ahead to schedule a visit so they and the gifts could be approved, but some just showed up, hoping to spread some cheer.
"They understood once we explained that not just anyone can walk around the unit," she said. "But I want them to know that what they gave was very much appreciated, even if they couldn't see how happy it made the children."
On Christmas morning, eight children woke up in the Winchester hospital, suffering from a variety of illnesses. Through the day, though, they were reminded that Santa didn't forget about them.
"Of course the children love getting the toys and all, but it really affects the families and parents too," Armstrong said. "They feel disappointed, no one wants their child to spend a first Christmas or any Christmas in the hospital. All the volunteers and donations really help to pick them back up."
Any gifts or funds that are left over after the holiday season are stored and distributed to children throughout the year, whether it be for a birthday or just for something to play with on the way to another hospital, Armstrong said.
Overall, the community proved that it has "one big heart."
"Kids often think that good things don't happen at the hospital, but they do," she said. "They know they're missing out on the usual things -- the parties, the dinners, the playing -- but hopefully we help them realize that Christmas can come to them. They're still part of it."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org