I am one of the original six who built the Choo Choo Hut, the permanent model railroad display at Texas Children’s Hospital. Now, it is up to me to keep the train maintained.
Last month we celebrated the 14th anniversary of the Choo Choo Hut. In those 14 years, I’ve seen thousands and thousands of children visiting the layout. In fact, last year, I had a mother come up to me and tell me she was a patient here when she was 14. Now her daughter is a patient here and she is taking her to see the Choo Choo Hut. It makes me feel old knowing I am on my second generation of making kids happy. Seeing the joy and happiness the trains bring to a place that can be dreary or even scary to little eyes, is why I keep doing this. Some have impacted me more than others.
Here are a few of my stories I would like to share. Anyone who has visited Texas Children’s knows as each holiday approaches the Choo Choo Hut is decorated for that holiday. What started out as only two holidays – Christmas and Halloween – has now grown to St. Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, springtime, Fourth of July, football season, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Christmas time is my favorite time of the year to visit Texas Children’s. For one thing, I dawn my Elf apparel. The kids really like to see me decked out in my elf suit. When a Santa walks by, I jump to attention and salute the ‘’head man’’ as I call him. If I am outside working, we strike up a conversation. Santa would call me one of his southern elves and would tell me what a fine job I am doing here and ask if I’d like a promotion to work up at the North Pole. I would tell him no; I am a southern elf and it is way too cold for me up there. Santa would nod and be on his way. The look on the kid’s faces is always priceless when Santa and I interact like that.
On one occasion, I was working inside the Choo Choo Hut, popping up to add something and then going back down sort of like a gopher popping out of his hole. Well, one little kid, about 8, was in the hallway watching me. He had his mother with him and she had her head in her phone texting, not paying much attention to what is going on outside her screen. Her son shouted, “Momma, there is an elf back there working on the trains!” Just as she was about to look up, I would pop down; she didn’t see me. I did this three separate times. Finally, I thought the Mom was going to really get on the poor kid, so I let her see me. We had a good laugh.
Another time, there was a special kid who was in the hospital for over three months. I try to single out those who are at the hospital for an extended stay. This particular boy started to know my schedule and would be there when I was there. I would always give him a simple job to help out. For instance, like watching for a specific train to come by, or hand me a tool when I would ask for it. I was going on vacation and wouldn’t be back until well after New Year’s. My last work day before the vacation, I went up there and sure enough, he was there. I told him I would be gone for more than three weeks and would he be there to greet me when I came back. He said, ‘’Well, I hope to be home for Christmas.’’ I turned to him and said that is great news! His mom pulled me aside and told me he wouldn’t make it to Christmas. Tears were pouring out of my eyes, as well as his mom’s. When I got back to the hospital I was hoping he would be there, but alas, he didn’t show. I went under the layout and there was an envelope with a note from his mom thanking me for giving him hope and something to live for in his last few months. She said the trains and an ice cream cone from McDonald’s made his days not as dark.
So, for all these reasons and more, this is why I am still doing this and will continue until I can’t anymore.