Youths share joy, goodwill for Christmas

Middle-schoolers sing, give gifts to children at a Baltimore hospital

December 24, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Seventh-graders Alyssa Murphy and Luke Bullis passed out bags filled with a paddleball, a snowman magnet and a stuffed penguin to children coming into the University of Maryland Medical Center.

After handing out the snowman-decorated bags to some children, the group of about 60 students from Southampton Middle School in Bel Air gathered to sing Christmas carols.

The students were participating in an annual trip to the medical center with Judy Fida, a teacher's assistant at Southampton Middle. At the medical center, the students join the Chamber Players, a group of about 25 volunteer musicians, including doctors, pharmacists, professors and other hospital staff, that was formed about 18 years ago by Elijah Saunders, a professor of medicine at the university.

"It's about goodwill," said Saunders, who plays the violin for the orchestra. "It's about helping sick people forget their illnesses and their problems and celebrating the season with music."

Fida became involved with the program about five years ago. It started Feb. 11, 2000, when she went to Baltimore with a team of educators to hear renowned pediatric neurologist Ben Carson speak.

The next Monday -- Valentine's Day -- her husband, Tony, woke up with a severe headache. A brain tumor was later diagnosed. Fida contacted Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, but learned he operated only on children. Carson referred her to another neurologist.

However, Carson and her husband made a connection, said Fida.

"My husband was wheeling around the floor after brain surgery with his Bible in his hand," said Fida. "Dr. Carson thought my husband was incredible. They formed a friendship."

However, her husband's cancer spread and he died that year.

But the friendship with the Carson family continues. Carson invited Fida to his home for Christmas, and while she was there, she met his wife, Candy Carson, who told her about a musical program she heads at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

"Judy volunteered to bring the children, and she has been bringing them ever since," said Candy Carson. "I think it's very good of the young people to learn the songs and help us spread good cheer."

Each year, Fida brings the school's chorus and a few hand-picked students to the event.

"I wanted to bring the students here to expose them to the hospital and children who are less fortunate than they are," said Fida, who has been at Southampton for 11 years.

"It's an experience for them that motivates the mind, body and soul."

While at the hospital, the students sing about 37 Christmas carols as the orchestra plays. They pass out goody bags to children visiting the hospital and send the remainder up to the children in the wards.

Although the students weren't allowed to visit patient rooms, Shannon Joslin, the child-life manager at the hospital, took a box filled with the goody bags to distribute to about 40 patients in the children's ward.

"We have a lot of people this time of the year that do things for the children," said Joslin. "The kids love and appreciate the gifts, but it can be overwhelming for them. So, often, we give them the gifts. And when possible, we give things to their siblings as well. It's hard to see your brother or sister get stuff all the time, and you get nothing."

For Fida's group, the experience was a chance to share Christmas joy, Alyssa said.

"If I was sick at Christmas, I would be very lonely," said the 12-year-old. "I think I would want someone to come and sing for me. It would be awful to not be home for Christmas, so I hope this makes some of the patients smile."

Taylor Nichols saw the trip as a way to make sure the kids got something for Christmas. The kids in the hospital might get a present, she said, but they won't be home with a Christmas tree.

"It wouldn't be the same to have Christmas in a hospital room," she said. "So I am going to smile when I sing and share some of my Christmas joy with them."

That's what Christmas is all about, said Elyse Turpin.

"Christmas is about spreading cheer, giving gifts and having laughs, no matter where you are," said the 12-year-old from Bel Air. "I don't know what I would do if I had to spend Christmas in the hospital with needles in my veins."

Luke said the experience was an eye-opener for him.

"I get to go home and relax and share Christmas with my family," he said. "Being here has made me see that some people can't do that. It makes me appreciate and respect what I get at home even more."

For Amie Stephens, 12, of Forest Hill, the response from a lone patient in the hallway was enough to lift her holiday spirits.

While singing a Christmas song, an elderly man in a wheelchair stopped to listen to the students sing. Amie said she was mesmerized by what she saw.

"I will always remember the look on that man's face as he sat there, sick and smiling at me," she said. "His face was just lit up like a Christmas tree. It made me smile and feel happy that I helped make him feel good at Christmas."

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