It’s Christmas in July for Young NIH Patients

Families staying at The Children’s Inn in Bethesda escorted by Montgomery police for Target shopping spree


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Montgomery County police Officer Bobby Ladany dressed up as Santa for the Christmas in July shopping trip.

ERIN DOHERTY

Customers browsing the toy section at Target in Gaithersburg may have been surprised Wednesday afternoon to turn down an aisle and find Santa Claus, complete with a full white beard and big belly, surrounded by nearly 60 kids with their parents and more than a dozen “elves.”

Santa, otherwise known as Montgomery County police officer Bobby Ladany, accompanied the families on the shopping trip for the third annual Christmas in July celebration sponsored by The Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Families who are staying at the inn while their children are being treated at NIH took over the toy aisles of the 25 Grand Corner Ave. store to shop with $50 gift cards given to each patient and sibling.  

The celebration began when patients and their families boarded two coach buses decked out with snowflakes hanging from the ceiling and bows on the windows at the inn on the NIH campus on Rockville Pike. Santa and his elves—county and NIH police officers riding motorcycles or in cruisers—escorted the buses through Bethesda traffic and along I-270, reducing what is normally a nearly 50-minute rush hour drive to about 20 minutes.

At the store, the families were paired with police officers to help them shop. Many of the kids couldn’t decide what was the most exciting part of the afternoon—shopping with police officers or having direct access to Santa. Six-year-old Jack O’Connell from New Jersey knew what he was most excited about—the prospect of getting a shiny new Hot Wheels toy car.

“I want the fastest Hot Wheel in the universe,” he said.

The annual Christmas in July celebration began in 2016 to help bring joy to children battling rare or serious illnesses who are undergoing treatment or who are participating in clinical trials at NIH, according to a press release published by the inn.  

Laura King, senior director of community engagement, said she has worked at the inn for 23 years and still loves seeing patients’ joy during events such as the annual Christmas in July celebration.

“These kids are in medical appointments during the day and struggling with their illnesses and what comes along with that and they’re missing their friends and their normal routines back home,” King said. “Being able to come here and look up to the police department and just having some fun in a diversion to what the day has been like” is heartwarming, she said.

The Christmas in July celebration is one of many events hosted by The Children’s Inn, a nonprofit founded in 1990 to provide a comfortable place for children and families to stay. An estimated 13,000 families from 94 countries and all 50 states have stayed there over the years.   

The inn partners with the county police department for events throughout the year, such as a Christmas celebration in December and regularly scheduled Bingo nights.

Ladany has played the role of Santa for 11 years. He said the opportunity to help distract young patients from their medical problems is why he keeps donning the red velour Santa suit and white bushy beard every July.

“If we can just put a smile on their face to let them forget about a treatment one day, to let them forget about getting shots or anything, and we can make them smile, then you know what, we’ve done what we’re supposed to do,” said Ladany, who’s been a police officer for 28 years. 

Ladany, 57, said he plans to continue playing Santa until he’s told he’s not fit for the job, which he thought might happen after he lost more than 100 pounds over the past year. Other police officers often joked that “we don’t know if we can have a skinny Santa,” Ladany said, so he vowed he would stuff his suit “to pump … up a little bit” so he could still play the role.

“Until they tell me I can’t do it, I’m doing it,” Ladany said. “Sometimes after a day like today, I almost feel like I got as much, if not more, than these kids got out of it because I have an opportunity to just give them a hug.”

 

 

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