‘A little bit of sunshine’: How the Children’s Inn at NIH gets holiday cheer

Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus pose with the Hazen family at the Children’s Inn at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019. The Hazen family just received good news about 12-year-old Olivia Hazen’s health. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus aren’t the only ones spreading holiday cheer at the Children’s Inn at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. Volunteers, many with personal connections to the National Institutes of Health, are also working to bring joy to families whose children are fighting serious illnesses.

For one family, there is a Christmas miracle: Lauren Hazen, of Ontario, Canada, just found out that her 12-year-old daughter, Olivia, who is getting treatment for leukemia, is in remission.

“Our doctor called to say that Olivia is in remission and that the trial that she was on at NIH worked,” Lauren Hazen said.

Hazen’s daughter has relapsed three times over a period of five years, she said, so, “This is huge for us. It’s very overwhelming, and it’s hard to put into words right now. We’re just so grateful and thankful.”

Saira Sufi and her son, Zakaria, volunteer at the Children’s Inn at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, where Zakaria’s twin brother, Hadi, was treated for aplastic anemia. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Like Hazen, Saira Sufi is the parent of a child who was treated at NIH and spent time at the Children’s Inn at NIH.

But, unlike Hazen, Sufi’s family didn’t get the news they hoped for: Her 7-year-old son, Hadi, who suffered from aplastic anemia, lost his battle with the disease two years ago.

Sufi comes back to volunteer at the Children’s Inn at NIH, and she brings Hadi’s twin brother, Zakaria, with her.

She is frank about the bittersweet experience. “It’s a little tough, I’ll be honest, but at the same time, it brings back amazing memories,” Sufi said.

She finds comfort in the warm welcome she and Zakaria get, and the fact that people remember Hadi.

“And so, it’s great coming back here,” Sufi said.

Along with her ability to share her experience with parents, Sufi brings coffee to the Children’s Inn at NIH — a facility that allows parents to stay at a “place like home” while their children get expert treatment for their illnesses. She jokes about how access to coffee — she’s a fan — is vital.

But Sufi said the Christmas celebration doesn’t just focus on the child who is undergoing treatment. Siblings and other family members get attention as well. There’s recognition that everyone is touched when a child is ill.

'We're just so grateful' (WTOP's Kate Ryan)

Making spirits bright

On Christmas Day, the bright, open lobby is packed with bags and bags of presents. There’s a tree trimmed with bright lights and garlands, and Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus sit by the fire.

But instead of elves, volunteers make the holiday magic. Lori Wiener, one of the founders of the Children’s Inn at NIH, has been volunteering for 30 years. Starting Christmas Eve, she said the work is round-the-clock.

“We pack presents for every mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandma and grandpa who is here with the patient and then, in the middle of the night when everyone is sleeping, we deliver the bags around the Christmas tree,” Wiener said.

'It brings back amazing memories of the smiles we get when we walk in' (WTOP's Kate Ryan)

Husband and wife duo Jerry and Joyce Sachs have also been volunteering for decades. Jerry Sachs has been a patient at NIH, and the couple started pitching in with their family when they saw that Wiener, who started the traditions, was tackling all the work on her own at first.

“We thought, how could one person accomplish what she was doing?” said Joyce Sachs.

“It’s such an important time of the year,” she said. Making sure that siblings and other families have a little something on Christmas Day really matters, she added.

“We know that all ages love to have packages to open,” Joyce Sachs said with a broad smile.

“It’s heartwarming to see families here, to bring a little bit of sunshine and some smiles at a time when they’re going through some very traumatic medical treatment — we know what that’s about,” said Jerry Sachs.

After brunch, it was time to open presents, and each family was called up to collect their bag of presents — with something for everyone.

Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus were, of course, there to help. While ringing jingle bells, Santa called out in a booming voice, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas to all!”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Lori Wiener’s name. 

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