The lobby of Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital is abuzz with activity.

Children cluster around five circular tables to pursue the infinitely serious business of expressing their creativity on the walls of their personal gingerbread houses. Santa grins his way from table to table, offering high fives and ho-ho-hos, as dozens of volunteers—members of the Big Hearts for Little Hearts Loma Linda Guild—mingle with the kids, making sure they have plenty of candies and frosting to decorate the colorful, miniature abodes.   

Welcome to Gingerbread Village 2016. Dixie Watkins, who co-founded the guild in 1999 with Eloise Habekost and Nancy Varner, explains the reason for the event.

“We feel blessed to be able to do this for the children,” Watkins observes. “Here they are, stuck in the hospital at Christmas. It makes things a whole lot better if they can temporarily leave the world of doctors, nurses, and needles to come down here and have fun.”

“It really brightens their day,” Habekost agrees, “to be able to get away from it all. The expressions on their faces make all the hours of preparation completely worthwhile.”

As they speak, an adorable little girl, who can’t be much older than two or three, pops a candy that was intended for the wall of her house into her mouth. Her eyes sparkle as she answers the question, “Are you having a good time?”

“Uh huh!” she replies, smiling from ear to ear.

Guild volunteers are running all over the place. In a nearby room, a dozen of them sort candies into paper bowls. Three more haul gingerbread house kits—a tray containing one pre-assembled house and a selection of candies and frosting—up to patient rooms on the units so kids who can’t come down can still enjoy the event in their own rooms. Others arrange books and bears—this year’s gifts for participants—into large racks.  

All of this transpires under the attentive eye of Dinah Evans, Dorothy Clark Brooks, and staff members of the department of child life services, who keep bringing more children to the event. At the end of the day, Guild Manager Josh Zahid will disclose that an estimated 80 children came down to the lobby while another 50 got to participate upstairs in their rooms. Don Finch snaps pictures left and right, documenting the occasion for posterity. Finch is one of two males on the guild board; this reporter is the other. We know what other men can only wonder about: teaming up with the guild ladies has made better men out of both of us.

As the morning moves on, Scott Perryman, MBA, senior vice president and administrator of Children’s Hospital, and Richard Chinnock, MD, chief medical officer, pop in to say hello. Perryman’s wife, Angie, is in charge of the event today and arranged for him to stop by to greet the kids. She also arranged for another visitor who came strolling in at the stroke of 10:30 a.m. 2016 marks the first-ever appearance of the fabled Gingerbread Man at the event, but judging from the children’s reaction, it won’t be his last.

An hour later, representatives from Alta Vista Credit Union dropped in with a check in the amount of $3,879.78. The funds will help the guild purchase teddy bears for the patients of Children’s Hospital. “At ten bucks a pop, that works out to a grand total of 388 teddy bears,” Watkins exudes. “This is just wonderful! Thank you so much!”

At the end of the day, the children head back to the units and the guild volunteers begin the momentous task of rounding up the leftovers, tearing down the tables, and returning the lobby to its original form. In the corner, however, a tower of gingerbread houses stands as colorful testimony to the childlike exuberance that turned the place into a giant playroom the last five-and-a-half hours.

“We look forward to this event every year,” Watkins states. “I would be hard put to say who has the most fun—the kids or the volunteers.”

“That’s an easy one,” Habekost responds. “The children enjoy it, but we have the most fun by far!”