The scene was set at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Norco. The soft sounds of Bing Crosby Christmas carols were punctuated by the voices of children who were sitting at tables coloring Christmas-themed posters and placing stickers on a rooftop scene including Santa Claus and his reindeer.
Adults in the background put the finishing touches on a luncheon of chili dogs and began serving the crowd of hungry children and parents who had been riding in a parade float for much of the day. Thatís when Santa slipped in through the back door toting a sack over his shoulder and giving out stuffed animals while making his way through the hall bellowing Christmas cheers.
Cousins Patrick Lebranch and Treívon Labranch argued over whether Santa was real or not.
"That manís not real," Treívon said momentarily looking up from a poster he was coloring. "Do you believe he is real?"
"Yeah. He is," Patrick said. "I just know it."
Treívonís non-belief in the big man in the red costume did not keep a smile from creeping up on his face and then completely taking over once Santa handed him a plush stuffed teddy bear.
It was just such a reaction the Knights of Columbus in Norco where hoping to elicit when they invited child cancer patients and their families as part of the Kids Kicking Cancer program to participate in their Norco parade float for the seventh straight year.
Luling Elementary student Jeri Seago-Moga was one of the children in attendance.
Seago-Moga said although it was not the first time she had ridden on a parade float it was her first time in the Norco Parade.
"The last time I rode on a float was with my cheerleading group," Seago-Moga said.
Seago-Moga has been going through chemotherapy treatments for bone cancer. The 11-year-oldís hair has fallen out and she relies on the use of a cane. Her brother, step-mother and two step-sisters attended the event with her.
Charlie Offner, past-Grand Knight of the organization, said the program came together a few years after the Knights had suspended their participation in the Norco Christmas parade.
"After two years of nobody riding on the float we kind of gave it away. By chance I met this young lady who was working for Ochsner and I asked her what she did," Offner said. "I said if you all need anything we are trying to help with the community and I can probably help you all monetarily. She told me they are looking for activities, not looking for money. So the first thing I thought about was our float."
Now each year cancer-stricken children from the New Orleans Metro area and their families are invited to ride in the parade on the Knightís of Columbus float and then attend a luncheon afterward where they are provided with activities, gifts and a chance to sit on Santaís lap and whisper their Christmas wishes into his ear.
"We basically do it for the patients and for the siblings because the way I feel, while the kids are off getting treatment at M.D. Anderson or some other treatment facility, their brothers and sisters might be pushed off to an aunt or an uncle," Offner said. "So we bring every kid over here so they can sit on Santaís lap. They all get to ride in the parade and they all get to go see Santa Claus and everyone gets a toy."
Phyllis Dotson, a child life specialist at Ochsner Hospital, has been in charge of the organizationís operation since 2006.
"Iíve been volunteering with them since 2004 and then in 2006 I kind of took over to keep it going because we were talking about closing it down after Hurricane Katrina and I saw that it was in need. I just wanted to keep it going so we did," Dotson said.
Dotson said the organization aims to organize events for children with cancer and their families to offer fun working opportunities for those who are sharing similar experiences.
"Just to do something normal if they are on treatment. To get out with their family and have an event like this just really lifts their spirits and gives them something to look forward to," Dotson said. "Itís really cool."
Offner said the networking potential for the families is a very important part of the event.
"They can share their experience and thereís nothing better than for a parent to hear a second opinion from one of their peers when theyíve actually been through all of this," Offner said. "We have kids in there who have been in remission for six years. Weíve had kids who didnít make it, but it is very rewarding - we have to do it. It is something personal."
Current Grand Knight George Becnel, who has held led the Norco Knights of Columbus for the past three years, said being able to host the event each year is rewarding.
"It does hit home to me because I have been through cancer with family and thatís what the Knights of Columbus is really all about. We are here to help out," Becnel said. "Itís not just a boy club itís a club when we are asked to step to the plate to do things we step up and do it."
Those who would like to donate to the Kids Kicking Cancer organization can do so by sending a check to P.O. Box 10266, New Orleans, LA 70181 of call 504) 455-7754.
For those who like to offer support to the Knight of Columbus can send a check to 375 Spruce St. in Norco or call the hall at (985) 764-1944.
|Five-year-old cancer patient Miracle Maya Evans sits on Santaís lap.|