Spreading ‘Joy to the Kids’

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Wearing a golden tiara and a bright yellow ball gown flowing down to her toes, Rachel Gray opened the door of a patient's room at Inova Children's Hospital in Fairfax and peeked inside.

"Are you up for a princess visit?" she asked the young patient.

Ashley Matamoros, 12, nodded curiously, so Gray - or "Princess Sunshine" - opened the door wider and began her song: "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…"

Gray is the founder of Joy to the Kids, a nonprofit that brings some fun to the lives of children in hospitals through visits from costumed superheroes and princesses. Joy to the Kids was the winner of the Catholic Herald's 2014 "Nominate a Charity" contest. In the spirit of the Christmas season, Catholic Herald staff members chose Joy to the Kids from a number of reader-nominated charities. As the winner, Joy to the Kids received coloring books, crayons, journals, fairy wings, Disney Princess Barbie dolls and other donations from the Catholic Herald staff.

On a recent visit to the hospital, Gray made the rounds to about half a dozen rooms, singing songs and asking the young patients questions about themselves. When Ashley said she missed being in school, Gray pulled out a wand.

"This is a magic wand, but it's not just any magic wand," said Gray. "It's a pen. So you can do all the homework you're missing."

She handed Ashley a journal. "It's not just any journal," said Gray. "Because it's what I call a joy journal. You can only write things that make you super happy in it."

The idea behind the journals goes hand-in-hand with the idea behind Joy to the Kids. Patients, especially kids, need something to think about besides the hospital and the treatments ahead of them. While making visits dressed as a princess or a superhero is fun, Gray said that she wants to "give them just a little bit of joy to hold onto" after she's gone, too. She hopes the "joy journals" fill that gap.

Gray, who is also a professional actress, first came up with the idea for Joy to the Kids while working with a party company. A young girl's birthday party had been delayed because she was sick in the hospital. The girl told her that while she was in the hospital, the one thing that she wanted was a princess party. "I thought, 'Well, gosh, I could have done that,'" Gray said.

It took Gray a year to act on the idea, though. "I thought it would be too emotional," she said. "I cry at commercials."

During the fall of 2013, Gray reached out to the staff at Inova Children's Hospital, who embraced the idea. By May 2014, she had gone through the legal process of incorporating Joy to the Kids as a nonprofit.

"One visit and I was completely hooked," she said.

As it turned out, the young patients "were so happy to see me I didn't have time to be sad," she said.

Gray, who is the primary volunteer entertainer for Joy to the Kids, also occasionally has enlisted other performers, sometimes dressed as superheroes, to come with her during the hospital visits.

Having a visit from a costumed character can be "a magical experience" for some kids, said Christine Comer, a volunteer chaplain at Inova Children's Hospital and a parishioner of Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington.

"Kids are kids. Even when they're sick, they just want to play," she said.

Gray tries to give them an opportunity to use their imagination during her brief visits, such as during the 15 minutes or so she spent with Ashley. At the end of the visit, Princess Sunshine sang a "healing" song, put a hand on Ashley's head and dubbed her "a princess."

Stachyra Lopez can be reached at mstachyralopez@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014