Firefighter families brighten holidays for kids spending Christmas in the hospital

No one wants to spend Christmas in the hospital and it’s especially worrying for kids who think Santa won’t be able to find them.

So firefighters from Great Falls Fire Rescue and their families play Santa’s elves every Christmas Eve.

This year, firefighter Kris Whitaker started the day with a visit to the pediatric ward at Benefis Health System to consult with the nurses about how many kids would be there for Christmas and what kinds of gifts they might like.

The nurses are sneaky and chat their patients up about what they’re hoping to get from Santa this year. The parents also help with sizes and other important details.

Since there were just four kids in the ward this year, Whitaker made a stop at the NICU to see if they had any needs this year. The nurses try to send as many of their patients home for the holiday, Whitaker said, and in the NICU, the nurses requested strollers and front packs.

Whitaker then met his family and other firefighters and their families at Target to start the shopping. It’s a good thing their kids come to help since some firefighters, and this reporter, are clueless when it comes to My Life dolls, Hatchimals, Aquabeads and Num Noms nail polish maker kits.

The local firefighter union raises money throughout the year for the Christmas hospital visit, as well as Paul’s Holiday Wish program when they shop for and deliver gifts to families identified through the school district as needing a little extra help at Christmas.

Since they had a budget, the firefighters focused on the kids in the pediatric unit and then got a few front packs for the NICU. The strollers were a bit out of reach for this year’s budget.

McKenna Whitaker, 9, helps her dad every year and she thought the kids in the hospital would like the presents they picked out.

“I like helping people,” she said.

Her sisters Korinne, 6, and Amalie, 4, helped with the shopping and later donned santa hats with their holiday dresses for delivering the gifts.

When they delivered a hair straighter, nail polish and other small gifts to 13-year-old Aleeciana, the Whitaker family told her to have a Merry Christmas.

“I will now,” she said.

When they delivered a stuffed animal and other gifts to one girl and video games and an iTunes gift card to a teenage boy, they’re faces lit up and their families expressed gratitude for the thoughtfulness.

Kim Hughes is Aleeciana’s mom and also works at the hospital.

She said it’s heartbreaking to see kids in the hospital on Christmas and as a single mom, it was tough this year to also give her kids at home a good holiday.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said of the firefighters holiday tradition. “It’s hard enough that these kids are all homesick. It gives them a little sense of the holidays.”

Her daughter had been feeling down and the holiday surprise “makes her feel very, very good,” Hughes said. “That really made her feel better.”