Halloween at St. Jude is the stuff of legend and lore. It’s a day like no other on the calendar—a confectionary conglomeration of candy, creativity and fun.
“It’s a fantastic event,” said St. Jude President and Chief Executive Officer James R. Downing, MD. “If you’re new to St. Jude, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”
Superheroes soar to numerous trick-or-treat stops throughout the hospital while fairies and princesses pause to adjust their wings and tiaras along the candy trail. At each destination, costumed employees greet them with handfuls of treats.
Behind the masks are clinicians, scientists and support staff members caught up in the fun of the day. Longtime employees easily recall their first Halloweens at St. Jude—their departments’ themes, their costumes and the magical effect it all has on patients and siblings.
This year, 47 employee booths will welcome approximately 500 trick-or-treaters. Each department brings its own unique and creative spin to the event, including staff members in Chemical Biology and Therapeutics (CBT), who shared a behind-the-scenes look at their preparation.
Selecting a theme
In recent years, CBT’s themes came from popular movies such as Inside Out, Star Wars, Toy Story and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The theme selection process begins with a department-wide email to solicit ideas. The CBT Halloween Committee pares the list to three or four ideas, which the entire department then votes on.
“We start having meetings in the beginning of October, but we do the vote in September,” said Nicole Vita, a University of Tennessee Health Science Center graduate student working in CBT. “It gives us about four weeks to come up with costumes and make props because we do a lot of things that are handmade.”
CBT chose the popular video game Minecraft for this year’s theme. Department members began collecting boxes months ago that will be painted to represent the cubes that players use to build worlds in the 3-D game. The 50 12-inch by 12-inch boxes will serve as a backdrop at the booth that will also feature five characters from the game.
CBT’s Halloween organization includes three teams—with some members crossing over. The building crew assembles props and sets up the trick-or-treat stop Halloween morning. An event crew dresses in costume and hands out candy, and a separate candy-bagging group meets prior to the event to pack four to five pieces of candy in plastic baggies for easy distribution.
“Candy bagging is fun,” said Nisha Das of CBT, a graduate student from University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “I will not be here on Halloween this year, but I still get to participate in the candy bagging.”
Many CBT staff members are longtime participants in Halloween because it offers them a unique perspective that they don’t often experience as researchers working on long-term projects on the top floor of the Donald P. Pinkel, MD, Research Tower.
“I think our job as scientists, more than you think, is very creative and involves different forms of problem-solving,” said Elizabeth Griffith, PhD, a CBT postdoctoral research associate. “But using the skills that we’ve honed for our careers for something completely different like Halloween, and seeing that immediate payoff for the patients, is very satisfying.”
In most years, a skeleton crew of CBT staff arrive around 7:30 or 8 a.m. to assemble the booth. The main characters typically arrive around 8 to get into costume. A few staff members participate in reverse trick-or-treating at 10 a.m., taking candy to patients in their rooms on the inpatient floors. It’s an unforgettable moment for employees who experience it for the first time.
“When we were upstairs for reverse trick-or-treating, it was amazing to see how bright the kids’ faces got when they saw us,” Vita said.
The fun continues downstairs at noon as hundreds of trick-or-treaters begin their rounds, with plenty of memorable moments along the way. CBT senior research technologist Jamie Jarusiewicz, PhD, recalled her first year at St. Jude when the department had Toy Story as their theme.
“Someone in our department was Buzz Lightyear and there was a patient dressed up as him also, so to see the two Buzz Lightyears together was really cool,” Jarusiewicz said.
For the patients
In a recent St. Jude Insider poll, 91 percent of employees said their favorite thing about Halloween was seeing patients dress in their costumes. CBT staff echoed that result—all the planning, preparation, creativity and building has the singular goal of creating a fun and unforgettable day for patients and families. A side effect of the Halloween experience is a team-building effort that unites colleagues and departments across the institution.
“Not only do we bring our CBT family closer together, but we see how much this means to the patients and how happy it makes them even though they are going through such a tough time in their lives,” Vita said.