Local Hero: Bringing Holiday Joy to the Critically Ill

Meet an extraordinary RN and her band of elves.

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Photography by Jerry Sciortino

Initial Inspiration

As a nurse, Gerri Neylon decided to dedicate her professional life to helping treat and comfort cancer patients. But it became an even greater mission in 2003, when she met a woman with lung cancer who had just given birth and faced an uncertain future.

"I kept finding myself thinking, 'What can I do for her?' " recalls Gerri, 59. "My instincts told me to do something." With Christmas coming up, Gerri reached out to her inner circle to explain the new mom's situation. A few days later, relatives and friends were dropping off clothes, diapers and other gifts. Little did Gerri know that her impulsive act would grow into a bona fide organization that provides Yuletide cheer to families affected by cancer in Chicago's Southland region.

Joyful Tidings

With each passing year, Gerri's project snowballed. "It took on a life of its own," she recalls. As word spread locally, the phone started ringing nonstop. Donations often turned up on Gerri's doorstep. By 2006, Christmas Without Cancer was an officially recognized nonprofit and had begun receiving word of people in need through a variety of channels. In order to be considered, a person must have a documented cancer diagnosis and a doctor's note.

Typically, volunteers connect with selected families in November to solicit a wish list. Then, a week or two before Christmas, Santa Claus arrives on a fire truck to distribute presents and gift cards while a choir sings carols outside.

"It's very rewarding and emotional," says Gerri, who is divorced and has three grown kids. "There are always tears in our eyes. To me, they're tears of joy because we're bringing them happiness on what could possibly be their last Christmas."

Since its inception, the group has helped nearly 1,000 patients and their families and continues to expand its efforts through word of mouth and social media. A core group of about a dozen volunteers also assist patients monthly throughout the year, providing things like mortgage money and gift cards.

Grateful Recipients

When Kristin Torpy's husband, John, was a patient in Gerri's hospital undergoing treatment for brain cancer, Gerri had the couple's back. With Kristin able to work only part-time, gift cards for groceries and gas seemed heaven-sent. "It's more than just the gift cards, though," says Kristin, 53. "Gerri is a great source of emotional support as well as knowledge."

When Danielle Fortuna Ellis' young son Chris was battling neuroblastoma, a tough-to-treat nerve cell cancer, the charity fulfilled an unusual request: a basement renovation. Other family members—husband Ted and daughter Maria, then 6—needed a separate space to stay if they got sick, in order to safeguard Chris' chemo-weakened immune system. And that's what the family got: a finished basement with a living area and bathroom. Later, at Christmas, Gerri's group delivered gifts for all. "They were just unbelievable," says Danielle, 41. "That woman has the most selfless heart of anybody I have ever met."

For more information or to donate, visit christmaswithoutcancer.org.