Christmas Dreams recently debuted its new 'Christmas Is Coming' experience — a 40-foot trailer decorated as Santa’s mobile home.
For some children who are battling life-threatening illnesses, Christmas can’t wait.
Cue Orlando-based nonprofit Christmas Dreams, which provides the Christmas experience 365 days a year for these children and their families.
CHRISTMAS CAN’T WAIT
It all began about 11 years ago with founder LeeAnn Stayer, who at the time had a foster child and wasn’t sure when he would be reunited with his birth mother. She battled with the thoughts of whether that year was the last birthday or Christmas she would spend with him and took her concerns to several other people she knew.
Many of them were in similar situations or knew people who were — whether it was a foster child or one who was fighting a life-threatening illness.
“Some people I knew had similar journeys, and several of us on the board had children who we weren’t sure how long they were going to be around,” she said. “We’ve been there, and there are families hurting who need some encouragement. I think that’s kind of where the dream started. It grew with the board and volunteers in the community.”
Christmas Dreams brings the winter holiday to kids in need any time of the year. The organization has partnered with Florida Hospital for Children for the last few years and puts together numerous projects year-round.
For example, volunteers will fill either small blue stockings or “Dream Boxes,” both of which are full of Christmas trinkets and fun things to bring some holiday cheer, even in April or May. They also make Christmas-themed pillowcases to take to kids in the hospital so they can have something cozy and comforting at all times.
They’ve even decorated some patient or procedure rooms and waiting areas, and Santa Claus will make his way through the neonatal intensive care unit to take photos with babies who won’t be home for Christmas.
“We realize some kids just can’t wait for Christmas, so we want to be able to bring Christmas to them,” Stayer said.
CHRISTMAS IS COMING
New and exciting this year is the Christmas Is Coming experience, which launched Monday, Dec. 11. The experience is hosted in a 40-foot trailer that has been converted into Santa’s mobile home.
“When the kids come in the first thing they get to do is make a cookie with Mrs. Claus in her kitchen, create, talk and have a good time and learn about Santa’s favorite snacks,” Stayer said. “Then they move to the Tinker Shop, where one wall is full of toy pieces and parts they can use to create their own new toy, name it and have fun being creative.
“Then they get to go into Santa’s ‘Man Cave,’ which has a Christmas tree and fireplace,” she said. “(Because) he’s in his man cave, Santa doesn’t have jacket or boots on. His jacket’s on a hook and the boots on the floor, and the children can put on his jacket and have their pictures taken in it.”
The trailer has been about a year in the making and was made possible by the help of volunteers who worked every Saturday morning to gut it and transform it into a North Pole-themed wonderland.
It’s part of Christmas Dreams’s overarching goal, which is to build an indoor, Christmas-centered theme park. The theme park is currently in the fundraising phase, and would ideally be located in Christmas, Florida.
“Our big goal is to build a theme park,” Stayer said. “The funding isn’t there yet, but we knew we needed to be doing something. So we put our mini theme park in it (the trailer) and get to take it around to these children to love on. It’s not only to love on these families, but also as a fundraising tool to show people that this is what we want to build.”
Any child who has a life-threatening illness, as well as his or her family, is eligible to visit the Christmas Is Coming trailer. It will be parked at Florida Hospital for Children through Friday, Dec. 15, but it can travel anywhere a 40-foot trailer will fit. Stayer hopes to take it on the road again in the spring.
“It’s been neat to see, and it does fill them with joy,” Stayer said of children’s reactions thus far. “I’m hoping to give them some Christmas joy and hope. I hope it lets them know that they’re loved and not alone and that there are people who care that they’re struggling. We want to do what we can to make the most of the moment and give the family something to cherish.
“We want to let the entire family share in this moment with the child and for a minute forget the nightmare that they’re living and really live in a Christmas dream,” she said.