WMU students don character costumes to spark smiles among pediatric cancer patients

Tinker Bell has a lot of fun during a recnt photo session. (WWMT/A Moment of Magic Foundation)

Local college students are taking on movie and storybook personas with the hope of creating a moment of magic for children dealing with pediatric cancer.

They're volunteering for the roles via a nonprofit called “A Moment of Magic Foundation." Many of the students, about 100 are involved, dress head to toe in costumes depicting popular TV and movie characters as they visit with children in area hospitals.

Audrey VanEssen, a WMU senior, is president of the Kalamazoo Chapter of the foundation. She said A Moment of Magic was founded in New York City and has expanded to universities across the country. WMU adopted its chapter about a year and a half ago, she said.

“We service children that have pediatric cancer and other medical vulnerabilities by offering them creative programming," VanEssen said. "We also do babysitting, and we will go do community events and we also do different video chats for children that we physically can’t get to. So much of what they go through is not what’s typical for a child. We want to bring a little bit of light and a little bit of hope into that scenario.”

It’s more than just playing dress up for the volunteers. Custom-designed costumes, wigs and make-up are a must when visiting children and their families.

“Make sure that hair and makeup for all of our characters is right on point and then we’ll have them get into their costumes and then put on their wigs and then we take them through the process of getting ready and then onto the hospital,” VanEssen said.

They’re also required to complete 40 hours of training before playing one of the 35 roles, without breaking character.

“It really is awesome to be someone that the kids look up to and they enjoy watching on TV and then be able to bring that to life is an amazing experience,” VanEssen said. “Being with the child is heartwarming and beautiful and people think that it’s sad, but it’s really not a sad experience because you are their role models. A lot of the times for these little kids ... we are the people that they look up to.”

The chapter president said volunteers will travel within a six-hour radius of Kalamazoo for the special visits, all at no cost to the families, hospitals or community event coordinators.

“All of our services are free of charge. We never charge any of the families, any of the events that we go to because they have enough on their plate and this is something that we can do,” VanEssen said. “We never set a limit on our visits, so we’re there as long as the organization or hospital needs us, to make sure that we can visit every single child that needs us.”

September is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. VanEssen and other volunteers will join other students from across the country in Washington D.C., on Saturday, for a march to raise awareness about the disease. VanEssen said the Kalamazoo chapter is also hosting a 5K event Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, to educate visitors about pediatric cancer. She said characters they play will be at the event. This event will also raise money for the chapter to help fund their services.

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