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UNC students bring 'moments of magic' to kids at UNC's Children's Hospital

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The web-slinging superhero from the UNC chapter of A Moment of Magic surprised local preschooler Graham on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.

When UNC sophomore Caroline Stillwell first volunteered at UNC Children's Hospital, she donned a brunette wig and yellow gown. 

With those two steps, Stillwell transformed into Princess Belle to surprise a three-year-old on her birthday. 

“I walked out there knowing I made her day and her day was full of magic,” she said.

Now, a year after her first volunteer visit, Stillwell is the event coordinator for UNC’s chapter of A Moment of Magic, a national nonprofit organization. Students involved with A Moment of Magic dress up as characters to visit children in hospitals, therapy clinics and outdoor events. 

Stillwell said she has organized over 30 visits this semester. 

“We’re not there to talk about their illness. We’re not there like a nurse to prick them with needles. We’re simply trying to treat them like a kid,” she said.

The volunteers visit as characters that many children watch on TV, so when those same characters come to surprise them, Stillwell said it makes a big difference in their lives. She added that the volunteers' passion and commitment to their characters brings something special to the hospitals.

“There's so much importance to treatment through joy,” Megan Hnilica, a new member coordinator for the chapter, said.

UNC Children's Hospital play facilities operations manager Beth Bailey said she “absolutely” agrees with Hnilica. 

When the volunteers visit children in the hospital, they fully embody their characters by dancing, crafting and playing with the kids.

“One thing that we always say is play is a right and not a privilege of a child,” she said.

Bailey said when kids come to the hospital, their lives are completely upended. The act of playing is a very therapeutic tool, she said, and can sometimes help kids get discharged sooner because it allows them to move around. 

For example, Bailey said a child may respond to play differently than standard physical therapy.

“It's a lot more fun to go play air hockey or pool when you're doing that kind of movement and motion,” she said. 

Stillwell said she thinks the organization's visits also lift the spirits of parents struggling with the weight of their children's illnesses. Bailey said the playful visits bring a sense of normalcy to the children's environment.

Since A Moment of Magic works closely with kids with chronic diseases and children who are neurodivergent, Hnilica said the executive board hosts weekly training meetings to ensure each volunteer understands how to speak and play with every child they meet.

She said training varies from discussions on pediatric cancer awareness to how to interact with families — and even decompressing after an emotionally charged interaction. Non-character volunteers also receive additional training to learn how to facilitate interactions between the children and characters.

When UNC junior and chapter president Emma Whitaker first became involved with A Moment of Magic in 2021, she said members told her that volunteering with the organization would be the most intimate service opportunity she would receive. 

Now, Whitaker said she understands what they meant.

“There's nothing as impactful as this because you get to build relationships with these kids. They really believe that you are a Disney princess that's come to visit them,” Whitaker said.

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 Although she thinks the UNC Hospitals volunteers are amazing, she said her organization does a different type of work. 

They talk with the kids, play with them, take pictures and do crafts with them, she said. Then, after the volunteers say goodbye, she said they hide to keep the magic of the day alive before walking back to their cars.

Recurring visits allow students to make personal connections with the children they meet, Whitaker said. She recounted how a child once gave her a portrait he had drawn for “Rapunzel.” 

Though she will not be able to keep her costume after she graduates, she said she will keep the drawing as a memory of her impact through the organization.

“This kind of service, I truly believe, is life-changing,” Whitaker said. “I'm not going to forget these experiences.”

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