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MUSC Angel Tree Parade celebrates 10 years of special stories

by Dawn Brazell | News Center | November 25, 2013

MUSC Angel Tree Parade'Chief Elf' Elizabeth Nista said she's amazed at how this event, which helps about 9,000 people during the holidays has grown thanks to the generosity of MUSC employees and the community.
Sarah Pack 

Little did MUSC employee Elizabeth Nista know how much her life would change in 2003.

Her manager’s request was simple: Go find a family for the department to adopt for the holidays. Nista, who is quality and outcomes coordinator for the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, contacted The Salvation Army and was paired with a retired MUSC employee who recently was given full custody of her three grandchildren.

“She was having to start a family all over again from scratch and she needed everything, so we gave her everything. My little department, we ended up filling up a minivan twice, and she was so appreciative.”

From that small start, holiday charity giving in its 10th anniversary year has grown into the MUSC Angel Tree Parade, complete with a holiday parade of floats and vehicles. Working in conjunction with The Salvation Army, MUSC employees give contributions to help more than 5,000 children a year. “If you add in the families we help, it’s closer to 9,000 people that we help each year. Because of the weak economy, the need has grown exponentially. MUSC has stepped up every year and met that need. It’s been absolutely breathtaking to watch every year.”

Nista, who jokes that her other title is chief elf and even has her office bathroom decked out in holiday cartoons, said the project did get overwhelming after a few years. In response to that, an Angel Board was created in 2009, with MUSC and community volunteers. “It changed everything. That’s why we have a parade. It made it so much fun because they come up with crazy, fun ideas. I can honestly say there are 42 board members, and I like and respect every one of them. They are all family to me.”

What has been fascinating to watch is the annual event’s effect on morale, she said.

MUSC employee Vicki Marsi entertains visitors at Ashley River Tower with some holiday music. 

“This project means so much to me because of what it means to everyone else. The employees get so excited. The people in the community – when they come as patients – they see those angels and take one, and come back to the event.

And, the things that happen each year – there’s no way that just happened by chance.”

What Nista is talking about is the magic that happens. Take the year 2009 that she remembers as the year of the violin. An Angel Board member donated a violin that was collecting dust in her home. Even though she knew MUSC just collected new toys, she felt compelled to do so on the off chance someone could use it, Nista said.

“What are the odds that same year we had an angel from a young boy who said all he wanted for Christmas was a violin. He was in a bad neighborhood and wanted to learn how to play to get into a better school. Take that one step further, the morning of the event, the violin is under the tree in the lobby of Ashley River Tower. One of our employees comes down and she zeroes in on that. Unbeknownst to us, she used to play in the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. She begins to play ‘Noel’ in the lobby. We all are just crying our eyes out. It was just incredible.”

Cinderella Cinda Kramer presents Brianna Causey a yellow rose before they take their carriage ride. 

Each year tends to have its own theme or story.

There was the Cinderella theme in 2011. There was a young girl whose mother was not doing well. The mom had wanted to take her daughter to Walt Disney World, but her health was failing. Nista sent out a message to the board asking for help.

“A board member wrote me back and said, ‘I was that same age when I lost my mother, and I never forgot the kindnesses that were done to me. I have something in mind.’”

That employee, Lori Stivers, called Walt Disney World in Orlando, and got them to donate a full Cinderella costume, including shoes, and a tiara, which was flown overnight to Myrtle Beach. Stivers drove in a storm to pick it up. In the meantime, a Cinderella costume was donated for employee Cindy Kramer to wear, and a local company donated its Cinderella carriage.

The four-year-old girl, Brianna Causey, rode the carriage with Cinderella, in her Cinderella outfit, for a magical event that got even better when they reached the Horseshoe and another patient, Morgan Porter, was awaiting their arrival. “We turn the corner into the Horseshoe and everyone spies this little girl in the corner, and she’s hooked up to this machine – a Berlin heart that is acting as her heart keeping her alive while she’s waiting for a heart transplant to come through. She saw Cinderella, and she had her Snow White costume on, and she thought it really was Cinderella. She asked if Cinderella would write to her,” Nista said.

Cinderella did. She wrote to Morgan Porter and at the bottom of the letter said: “When I wish upon a star tonight, I will wish for you to get a heart.” Porter did get her heart and is thriving, Nista said.

“She’s doing beautifully. This is why we do this every year. It’s a beautiful combination of what we do for a living, what we do in the community and who we are as people.”

It’s also a great way to join in with the community. A variety of groups and organizations, from the Burke High School Marching Band to the Patriot Guard Riders, participate. Nista said it hasn’t been hard to get community involvement.

“They want to do this and be a part of something bigger than themselves and bigger than their families, especially in a bad economy. We reach a need within the community and we also reach a need within ourselves to give. And we have fun doing it too.”

This year’s event, which has a superhero theme, will be Dec. 6. The parade lineup starts on Ehrhardt Street at 11 a.m. The route goes from there to Jonathan Lucas Street, passing the College of Nursing and Hollings Cancer Center, and then left onto Calhoun Street, going past the Hope Lodge, and finally left onto Ashley Avenue. It ends at the MUSC Horseshoe, where all the toys will be unloaded. The parade marshal is Timothy Moyer, a 6-year-old boy who received a bone marrow transplant.

“Come Dec. 6 at noon,” Nista said. “I witness great feats of heroism from both our staff and their patients as they battle illness together.  Once a year during the holidays, we get to see the human spirit on display, and it is magical.”




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