Snowflakes swirled. Snowballs flew. And the first annual All Children's Hospital Winterfest brought the sights and sounds of the holiday season to dozens of delighted kids and families Thursday night - with a helping hand from Mother Nature.
Temperatures dipped into the 50s as nightfall arrived, providing a perfect wintry feel to the well-attended event that took place on the hospital's spacious second-floor deck.
The Ocean Road Band set the festive tone by performing Christmas favorites, while patients quickly got into the spirit of the evening. They reveled in flurries created by a snow-making machine, hurled Styrofoam "snow balls," played on the pirate ship, sipped hot chocolate, posed with a cast of Super Hero characters - and simply savored a chance to get outside and not think about being sick for a while.
"This was really fun," said 15-year-old Hunter, who has cystic fibrosis. "I heard there was going to be snow, but I didn't think it would be like this. It was great being able to have some snowball fights."
Hunter was joined by his cousin, little brother and mom, Christina, who couldn't believe how cool the party on the cold St. Petersburg night turned out to be. "Unfortunately, I've had to work during his hospitalization, and I was just so excited when I saw that this was going on. Hunter had an absolutely great time."
The event came off without a hitch, even though it was conceived of and put together by the Child Life department with no time to spare.
"We had this idea only three weeks ago," said Child Life Director Kristin Maier. "To put something like this together in three weeks, the reality was it was going to take a big effort - kind of like the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. It took so many departments to make this happen. Everybody from legal to Environmental Services to facilities to maintenance and to marketing and media. Nobody said 'no.'
"Maintenance got us the lights and electricity. Everybody said "yes, this is what's good for patients and families, so let's do it.' We do a lot of really good events, but I have to say, hands down, that this is one of the best. Children were doing what children are supposed to do. They were having a snowball fight. They were running around. They were dancing. They were climbing on the slide. They were decorating gingerbread houses. They were drinking hot cocoa.
"They were outside being children first - and being sick second."
Kristin had a tough call to make on Wednesday, when the event was originally scheduled to take place. After rainy days Monday and Tuesday, the forecast called for a strong possibility of rain again late Wednesday afternoon and early evening. Because the snow-blowing machine came with a two-day rental, she had the option of pushing the festival to Thursday, which looked clear according to forecasts.
So Wednesday morning, the decision was made to wait a day - and it couldn't have worked out any better. After a balmy and sunny afternoon Thursday, the skies turned a winter-time gray as the event neared and temperatures began to dip - the ideal final touch for a party with snow as the featured attraction.
"At the last minute, we decided to postpone it - and look what happened," Kristin said. "I really believe when you do the right things for the right reasons, the right things happen. It's in the 50s. It's breezy. It feels like winter - it's the perfect storm."
Snow storm, that is.
"I didn't expect to see something like this at a hospital," said a St. Petersburg woman named Stacy, whose granddaughter is a patient at ACH. "These kids can't go downtown to the Winter Wonderland. But to bring something like that here is really cool. To me, how kids feel has a lot to do with the healing process. And something like this just makes them feel like a kid."
Some arrived wearing protective masks, some in wheelchairs, some getting out of isolation just in time to take part in the fun. A mother named Amanda, whose son recently underwent a bone marrow transplant and couldn't attend the event, still felt good about taking her younger son outside to enjoy the special night.
"To see all the kids who are sick and usually can't go anywhere or do anything is amazing," she said. "There are so many people here to help them. You can't even explain the feeling. It's wonderful. It actually brought tears to my eyes."
Along with a few snowflakes.