Cheer By the Busload

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Dozens of holiday "elves" help out on the annual holiday cheer bus.

A unique elf playing the role of Rudolph will lead his companions, fellow elves, a “Cheermeister,” and the jolliest of fellows, around Long Island to deliver gifts and holiday cheer to children with an extra special wish list this year. This elf will navigate not a red sleigh, but a fleet of 20 buses packed with parcels, singing volunteers, and fun. The recipients of this special day, taking place just a few days before Christmas, are battling various forms of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Led by Kids Need More Motivational Recovery Environments. Inc., the 5th annual Holiday Cheer Bus Elf Ride brings more than presents to families.

Navigating the holidays in the midst of coping with a child’s illness presents its challenges. Finding time for shopping and celebrating in-between doctor appointments and procedures, while managing to keep spirits high, is a difficult task. Dedicated to enhancing the lives of children, families and young adults coping with cancer and life-threatening illness, president Melissa Firmes and her husband John Ray lead the Holiday Cheer Bus, which made last season brighter for more than 250 children.

“It’s not just gifts, it’s really an experience,” Firmes explains. “It’s meant to be empowering. The elves are competing for the Cup of Cheer and there’s a scavenger hunt. The kids know what the challenges are and they get ready to help them win.”

According to Firmes and Ray, the Amityville-based nonprofit has begun to make inroads to reaching families on the North and South forks, but not nearly in as great of numbers as families in need further west on the island. This season, one of their goals, they said, is to increase that number. They said it is their hope that through outreach and publicity, families on the East End will get to know about the service, and reach out for a little holiday cheer. So far, stops are planned in Greenport, Southold, Peconic and Jamesport on the North Fork and Quogue, Southampton and Watermill on the South Fork.

Stuffing stockings, making whipped creamed Santa beards on elves, working on crafts and other festive activities encourage children and their families to enjoying some of the greater meaning of the holidays and inspiring a new tradition, while also aiding the overall cause. A favorite challenge is an elf bringing a bag of gifts to a random home, offering the whole experience to the unexpecting. The day is a combination of Christmas caroling, wish giving, community building and games wrapped into one. An after party rallying everyone together celebrates the winner of the Cup of Cheer, families and volunteers.

Kids Need More was born out of Firmes’ and Ray’s experience working at an oncology adventure camp that was part of a program led by the American Cancer Society. Thinking they could make a difference in the lives of children battling various illnesses, they quickly found it was they who had changed. For 20 years they watched campers become friends, grow up, get married, while working through roadblocks and dealing with loss. It was a profound experience that when the camp program ended, Firmes and Ray started their own organization, creating a model that could be applied to all populations dealing with trauma.

Shortly after founding the organization, Firmes was diagnosed with leukemia, with the first Holiday Cheer Bus running right after her diagnosis.

“I was pretty ill at the time and realized I related to how the holidays changed for me even though I did this kind of work,” she recalls, now in remission. “I get it. It’s a tailspin. Everyone celebrates, but it’s a different kind of celebration. I like that we get to come in and shake it up.”

Feeling like Santa Claus herself, connecting with the families is one of the most joyous aspects of the work. There are tender moments found watching young people the organization has mentored through the years take the lead now as volunteers. Watching children smile throughout the day, having a moment to just be a kid, is what brings tears to Firmes’ eye as she understands both the pain and the joy.

As the organization grows and expands its reach, Firmes hopes to add additional families to support, including more on the East End. People can nominate families they know of in need on the Kids Need More website, and also sign up to volunteer as elves, donate gifts and help fulfill the wishes of the children on the list.

“Every family you go to always thinks there is someone that needs it more than they do,” Firmes says. “But they need this, too. It’s a very inclusive, empowering event. It’s not just a charity that gives out toys. We hope to connect everyone within these communities.”

Learn more about the nonprofit Kids Need More Motivational Recovery Environments. Inc. and get involved at kidsneedmore.org.

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