Child Life staff and their accomplices bring holiday magic to the hospital for Mayo’s youngest patients

Child Life staff make sure the holidays are special for Mayo's youngest patients through visits from Santa, a balloon brigade and gifts galore. But they couldn't do it alone. Find out how Mayo staff, community members, and former patients and their families come together to make holiday magic.

Christmas seemed to be everywhere Jeremy and Ashley Scheffert looked, a painful reminder of how far life had strayed from normal since their son Ethan had arrived. Their beautiful baby boy, born with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, had spent most of his young life in a hospital. He'd recently had a heart transplant, and now there was just one gift the Schefferts wanted to receive. 

Ethan's Angels filled the entire Mayo Clinic Children's Center atrium with gifts for patients and their siblings.

"As everyone celebrated Christmas, we sat in the chapel begging and praying for Ethan's body to turn around and begin to heal," Ashley says. "Though this didn't happen, we will never forget the support we received from everyone at Saint Marys."

That included toys for Ethan and financial support.

"We couldn't believe everything we were given to help us," Ashley says.

Now she and Jeremy, along with a group of family and friends known as Ethan's Angels, provide that same support to others.

"We know firsthand what it feels like to spend the holidays in the hospital with a sick child," Ashley says. "We try to help those doing so each and every year."

This was the ninth year Ethan's Angels collected donations and distributed them to patients and families, giving each family a financial gift as well as gifts for each hospitalized child and their siblings.

"The tears of joy and relief we see are worth every minute of this toy drive," Ashley says. "We'll continue to do this in memory of Ethan as long as we are able. This is how we keep his legacy alive."

Ashley and Jeremy Scheffert with their sons Jack, Thomas, Luke and Ethan.

Johnny Hamann also knows what it's like to spend Christmas in the hospital.

His older brother, Joey, was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma when he was a junior in high school. Treatment started quickly after Joey was diagnosed, which meant the family — Johnny, Joey, their parents and two sisters — were unexpectedly away from home over the holidays.

"The Children's Center made it the best that it could be, which our family was very grateful for," says Johnny. "I wanted to find a way to give back and help other children and families going through similar situations."

He found just that through a foundation he started, Hamann's Helping Hands, which collects gifts to distribute to children in hospitals, including Mayo Clinic Children's Center. This year, the foundation made its second holiday delivery to Mayo Clinic.

"Giving back to a place that gave so much to us is an honor," Johnny says. "It's a blessing to be able to do what we do."

Providing shared meals, shared time

Caleb Ulrich loved being with friends and family, playing games, laughing or sharing a meal together. He also believed in making a difference.

His family, parents Jeff and Tori and brother Keegan, believe in making a difference, too. After Caleb passed away in 2019, they started the nonprofit CalebStrong, which provides meals, food and gas cards to families of hospitalized children throughout the year, including at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"We valued a family meal together, especially around the holidays," Keegan says.

Earlier this year, Caleb's family and members of the CalebStrong board of directors came to Mayo Clinic to serve some of the meals they had donated.

"We were honored to come to the hospital twice this year to serve meals," Keegan says. "We love seeing the patients and their families together outside their rooms."

Community-supported balloon brigade, Snowflake Station

For eight years, Hy-Vee has sponsored a balloon brigade in Rochester, inviting customers and vendors to donate balloons to children at Mayo Clinic.

That invitation led to 600 balloons making their way through hospital hallways — a sight that brought smiles to kids and their grownups alike.

One of those smiles came from Andrew Hansen, marketing coordinator at Hy-Vee Inc., who says delivering the balloons is a highlight for himself and his colleagues.

"Many of us are parents, and we know the impact that a simple gesture can make to a child who is having a bad day," Andrew says.

That's something he recognizes in a new way this year.

"My daughter had several stays at Mayo this year, and the visits from the Child Life team played a big part in helping her feel comfortable and cared for," Andrew says. "It was a huge blessing being able to return to the same halls where she walked as a patient and be able to bring that same joy to other children who were now in her place."

Community contributions go beyond balloons

The Mayo Clinic gift shops collected more than 1,000 gifts for pediatric patients this year, including a pile of plushies.

Each year, community members, including many Mayo Clinic staff and patients, donate thousands of gifts around the holidays. These gifts make their way to a Snowflake Station — a "store" set up for parents to select gifts for kids of all ages. Volunteers from the community and Mayo Clinic also are available for wrapping duty.

"It's hard for families to leave the hospital to go shopping," says Val Stuve, a certified child life specialist. "They are so appreciative of this opportunity."

Stuve says giving at this time of year doesn't just help families at Christmastime. Enough toys are donated during the holidays to stock Mayo Clinic Children's Center playrooms and toy closets, providing gifts for birthdays, and rewards and incentives for children hospitalized throughout the year.

Some of those gifts come from Miracles and Heroes, an event that brings emergency responders to Mayo Clinic Children's Center to visit with patients and deliver gifts funded through a grant from Target.

"It feels really good to be able to put a smile on someone's face when they are going through a difficult time," says Charlie Arendts, an officer with the Rochester Police Department. "This was our first Miracles and Heroes event at the hospital since COVID, and it was such a joy to visit with kids and families in person again."

Photos of the Miracles and Heroes event below provided by Gentle Wings.

Santa stops here

When Adrienne Sween interviewed with Jonathan Johnson, M.D., for a nursing position in Pediatric Cardiology, she made an unusual demand.

"I told Dr. Johnson that I would only take the job if I could play Elf some year, and he agreed," she says.

Dr. Johnson isn't just the head of Pediatric Cardiology. He's also Santa to the infants in children in Mayo Clinic's neonatal and pediatric intensive care units, a role he's played since 2006.

"It's one of my favorite days of the year," Dr. Johnson says of the time he spends visiting with medically fragile little ones and their families. "I just love the smiles that it brings to the families and patients and also to the staff I see during our tour."

For years, Sween was one of those smiling staffers, watching Dr. Johnson and an elfin sidekick visit the babies she helped care for. When she got a chance to suit up and accompany him herself, the experience did not disappoint.

"Providing a moment of magic for patients and their families is the greatest honor," she says. "Getting to witness their faces light up or just providing a typical holiday experience that may get taken for granted outside the walls of the hospital is beyond heartwarming."

Dr. Johnson agrees.

"It's an honor to do this, and I'm glad Child Life trusts me with this role," he says. "I just put on a suit for a day. The Child Life team works for weeks to create these visits, collect gifts for patients and their siblings, and get the units ready for the visits across both the downtown and Saint Marys campuses.

"The Child Life team is incredible," Dr. Johnson says. "They make it happen and deserve all the credit for making the holidays so amazing for our patients."