On Monday nights in the Franz basement, a group of UP students gather in a brightly-lit lecture hall. They’re wearing typical college student clothing, and they’re stressing over typical college student things, like upcoming deadlines and summer internships.
But on the weekends, they trade their jeans for satin costumes and trade reality for fairy tales as they transform into Cinderella, Captain Marvel and Tinkerbell look-alikes.
These students are a part of the University of Portland chapter of A Moment of Magic, a nonprofit foundation with sixteen chapters and more than five hundred volunteers across the United States. College-age volunteers dress as characters from Star Wars, Disney princesses or superheroes, and visit children who are injured, sick or have a chronic disease. Visits occur in hospitals, at their family homes, or over Skype calls.
AMOM President Molly Holmes Jacobs, a senior social work major, founded the UP chapter last school year after being inspired by a high school friend who founded a chapter at Fordham University. Although chapters of A Moment of Magic are primarily found on the East Coast, Holmes Jacobs had a vision of a thriving chapter in Portland.
“I just thought, ‘This is so cool. I’m just going to try, and we’ll see how it goes,’” Holmes Jacobs said.
New chapter applications opened in September of 2017. Holmes Jacobs labored over a 30-page application to become a chapter of the foundation, resulting in UP’s acceptance as one of six new chapters in 2018, and one of only two chapters west of Arizona. After months of effort, she was finally able to hold an informational session for interested members at UP in April of 2018.
Now, in the culmination of its first year on campus, the UP chapter is hovering at around 30 passionate members. Some are what they call Magic Makers, who do not dress up but contribute in others ways, such as fundraising and increasing awareness of the chapter. Characters, who bring children’s heroes and idols to life, make up around 25 of the members. This includes Holmes Jacobs, who plays a character based on Vanellope from “Wreck-It Ralph.”
Despite its whimsical nature, members of the chapter work hard to embody children’s idols and characters. During the weekly meetings, the chapter plans its future visits, reviews HIPAA regulations and undergoes scenario-based training as well as baseline foreign language skills.
“It’s a ton of work, in the best possible way,” Holmes Jacobs said. “It’s not a light commitment.”
During this school year alone, AMOM members have made multiple visits to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Randall Children’s Hospital and Portland branches of the Ronald McDonald House. They’ve also attended other non-profit events such as the Make-a-Wish Gala and the St. Jude’s charity walk, along with a variety of individual child visits and Skype calls.
In an average visit, the characters just spend time with the kids. Sometimes, they do arts and crafts like make Valentines or play games together. They come to holiday parties, take pictures with kids, or just talk and hang out.
Although the organization was created with the intent of helping pediatric oncology patients, virtually any child can have a character visit. They range from the terminally-ill to children who are recovering from mild surgery, to even the siblings of critically-ill children who are grappling with confusing and difficult circumstances.
“We try not to say no,” Holmes Jacobs said.
To become a character, aspiring students must submit an audition to the national Moment of Magic committee. This audition includes monologues, head and body shots and brief singing clips. The national committee will then assign the candidate to a character that they feel best embodies their individual spirit and skill set.
“There is a character for absolutely everyone,” Holmes Jacobs said.
Elizabeth Lyons-Best, a freshman elementary education major, joined the UP chapter in September of 2018 after seeing a flyer. Nationals gave her a character based on Rapunzel.
“I think she fits me perfectly due to her bubbly personality and love for life,” Lyons-Best said. “Everyone I’ve talked to has come to absolutely love their character.”
Physical appearance plays a strong role in character assignment. It’s a priority that characters are homogenous across the nation, to pay homage to these iconic princesses. Actors are also responsible for maintaining the fantasy with Disney-quality wigs and costumes. Since the costumes typically cost around the $450 range, this often involves members doing their own fundraising among family and friends, although the chapter will step in with additional funds if necessary.
Although Holmes Jacobs will graduate in the spring, she is confident in the abilities of her incoming replacement, junior business major Shannon Grady. Grady joined the chapter after Holmes Jacob’s informational session in April of 2018, and quickly secured a position as the fiercely independent Scottish princess Merida. As a former nursing major, Grady had maintained a passion for service, especially in the pediatric department.
“I was hooked immediately,” Grady said.
At Grady’s first hospital visit, she was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. Their group ended up on a floor that was predominantly teenagers, who are sometimes less excited by AMOM’s presence than younger children.
“We were expecting to not be as welcomed in that area as by, maybe, a four-year old girl,” Grady said.
They entered the room of a 15-year-old girl who had recently undergone major surgeries that left her struggling to stand on her own.
“When we walked into the room, her eyes just lit up, and she really wanted to be able to stand up and take a picture with us,” Grady said. “Her mom was so proud of her because she was able to stand up without assistance. We took a picture, and when we walked out of the room, she said, ‘Mom, that was the best birthday present ever.’ That made me so happy.”
In the future, Grady hopes to continue to expand the chapter’s reach and presence on campus. Although the chapter has done site visits exclusively in the Portland area, they have plans to travel to Seattle or Salem in the future. With more members, the club will be able to travel further distances and divide into groups to make multiple hospital visits at once.
After almost a year and a half of hard work and negotiations, the UP chapter obtained club status from Student Activities on March 4 of this year. This distinction in status means that the chapter can now fundraise on campus, use the official title of University of Portland and open a Waldschmidt account which allows more flexibility and independence with their funds.
Beyond mere logistics, club status provides a well-deserved sense of legitimacy for the work that the members have already poured into AMOM.
“We’re not just a ragtag group of kids,” Grady said with a laugh. “We’re part of a non-profit at this school.”
When asked to recount a favorite memory, Holmes Jacobs had an answer immediately. She recalled a recent hospital visit made by Aurora, Cinderella and herself as Vanellope from “Wreck-It Ralph.”
“We walked into this little girl’s room and she was like three, and she just freaked that we were there,” Holmes Jacobs said. “She squealed and hugged Cinderella and was just over the moon. When it came time for us to leave the room, she ran to the door and tried to close the door so that we could never leave, and it was just so cute. For me, I know that some of these kid’s lives are pretty hard; and so to make those moments happen where they really do forget everything that’s going on, and are just enthralled with, ‘Oh my gosh, Cinderella is in my room’... Those are the moments that make it worth it.”
The UP chapter is accepting new members on a rolling basis. Grady encourages anybody who is curious to contact email@example.com, or simply come to a meeting in Franz 034 every Monday at 8 p.m. to see what it’s all about.
“Right off the bat, it sounds daunting, as something to take up,” Grady said. “But when you’re starting out, it’s as much commitment as you want to give it, and I think most people learn that it’s something that they really are passionate about committing to, because the cause is so good.”
Gabi DiPaulo is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.