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JOHN LENNON’S ICONIC SONG, “IMAGINE,” CAME TO MIND WHEN I FIRST HEARD ABOUT JOY TO THE KIDS. I TOOK THE LIBERTY OF ADDING NO SICKNESS TO THE LIST OF THINGS THAT THE SONG ASKS US TO IMAGINE—NO HEAVEN, NO COUNTRIES, NO POSSESSIONS. IMAGINE IF THERE WAS NO SICKNESS… THINK ABOUT IT.
If there were no sickness, then Rachel Gray would not need to go to Inova Children’s Hospital on Thursdays to play the character Princess Joy and sing beautiful songs to make the children laugh and forget—if for just one moment, that they are sick. These children, who are at the hospital fighting horrible, painful diseases, such as cancer, are treated to live entertainment and creative playtime when they get to sing, blow bubbles, bob their heads and play, all in a pretend moment of time where there is no sickness. During this time the children’s and their parents’ thoughts are whisked away to a faraway place; they are not sick, and life as they know it is wonderful. Imagine that.
The theme of Joy to the Kids is this: Caring Characters Creating Hope to Cope. The mere idea of creating hope for any group, especially children, is a daunting task. In our discussion with CEO/Creator Rachel Gray, she told us about the genesis of this non-profit. Playing a character for a birthday party for a little girl who missed her birthday due to a lengthy hospital stay. She also spoke lovingly about Avery, who passed away from a childhood cancer. Talks with oncology nurses who were looking to help the children mentally cope with their illnesses. All of these experiences inspired Rachel to use her background in acting and opera performance to create Joy to the Kids— to make a difference in the lives of those ramshackled by an unforeseeable, uncontrolled bulldozer type of calamity that happens to some kids.
Rachel is dedicated to her mission of making the kids happy. She sometimes shaves her own head so the children can see a character who looks like them—hence she is also called Princess Joy, “The Bald Princess.” Many kids have had their heads shaved because of their illnesses or lose hair due to treatments, and she strives to break the stigma attached to hair loss, spreading the message that “you are perfect, just as you are.” This effort, going bald, is not always received with a smile; some have criticized her saying that she is mocking or imitating those who have cancer. But Rachel is quick to let anyone know that when she is a shave it is for one of two reasons—either she has participated in a St. Baldrick’s Foundation shave event to raise funds for childhood cancers; or she is personally supporting a child battling cancer and wants to help raise awareness of this tragic disease. She counts StillBrave and Smashing Walnuts—other local charities—as her comrades in this fight for children.
I asked Rachel to close her eyes and imagine how to expand the love, the happiness, the hope and healing of Joy To The Kids. Of course financial and costume donations are always welcomed; with some prodding Rachel shyly answered that she would love the service of an administrative assistant so that she could spend more time visiting hospitals. Another wish is to be able to expand the outreach to include more institutions with patients who are wards of the state, who most likely do not have parents and other family members visiting them in the hospital.
Joy To the Kids offers an assortment of original characters like Princess Joy, as well as many of the more popular fairy tale princesses. They are constantly recruiting other characters, including superheroes. Some of the staff that have been trained have since branched out and moved to Denver, where they now bring Joy to the Kids in the hospitals of Colorado, officially making this organization one with a national outreach.
Although this growth is exciting, it doesn’t come without reservations. Rachel admits that finding the balance between work and family life has been a challenge. In addition to Joy to the Kids, Rachel runs a birthday princess party company, has co-authored a book about The Bald Princess that she hopes to publish, and is the mother of her own 8-year-old princess. There are times she finds herself wondering how to keep it all going, and yet asks that question we all struggle with at some point in our lives: Am I doing enough?
And then the answer comes.
It comes in the form of a child’s glowing smile, beaming from ear to ear as his favorite superhero walks into the hospital room. It comes as the father of a child cries silently in the corner as he watches his beautiful, innocent little girl sing along as the Princess softly sings a lullaby. It comes with a letter from a grandmother who expresses gratitude that the Princesses entertained her other three grandchildren in the waiting room of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit so she could have a precious moment alone with her baby granddaughter, hooked up to life support. And it comes at a funeral, when Rachel is asked to sing to celebrate a life taken much too soon as an impossibly small casket rolls down the aisle.
Yes, Joy to the Kids is making a difference
CARA EVERETT is a mother of two living in “Pleasantville” (Ashburn), Virginia. She’s a Jill-of-all-trades for Posh Seven and an aspiring novelist.