How one thoughtful gesture inspired a nonprofit for sick youth around the country.
Do you remember the excitement of seeing a movie in theaters when you were young?
Those experiences can feel magical. Even the little things — your ticket being torn, watching your popcorn getting scooped into a bag, scouring the display case for your favorite candy, choosing the perfect seat — are all part of this meaningful and exciting ritual, especially when it's new.
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It can be easy to forget, though, that not everyone has these experiences. For example, youth in hospitals battling serious and even life-threatening illnesses are among that group.
Going to see a movie in theaters could be just a distant memory for them.
While their friends enthusiastically talk about the new "Star Wars" movie, quoting all their favorite lines, youth in hospitals are sometimes left out, not knowing when they'll be able to see it. And by the time the movie is released after its theater run — assuming they have access to DVDs, streaming services, or the like — the excitement often has died down, and everyone has moved on to the next blockbuster.
For young people who already feel disconnected from the outside world, it's one more way they can feel left out.
This is something that Janis Fischer noticed when she was volunteering at her local hospital's movie night.
On these Friday evening movie nights, the hospital would screen movies they had rented. These were always popular occasions, so in January 2001, Fischer thought she'd up the fun and give them an extra special experience: see a movie that was still in theaters.
Fischer was able to borrow a friend’s screening copy of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which had only just opened in theaters. The excitement on the hospital floor lasted for days.
That's when Fischer had a brilliant idea — rather than making this a one-time treat, she'd find a way to bring the theater to them on a regular basis.
After an introduction from a mutual friend, she teamed up with Evelyn Iocolano, who had worked on a number of major motion pictures like "I'll Be There" and "The Big Tease." Joshua Gaspero, a children's book publisher and friend of Fischer, joined the team as well.
Together, the three founded Lollipop Theater Network, a nonprofit that brings brand new films and TV series to youth in hospitals across the country.
"[We] let them have a little bit of their childhood back," Iocolano explains.
Since June 2002, the Lollipop Theater Network has screened over 404 films and TV series for hospitalized youth. And not only does it give them a stronger connection to the outside world, it energizes them and helps to lift their spirits.
"Your spirit has so much to do with your health," Iocolano explains. "That's why we try to help [them], for a moment, try to forget what they're going through."
And the organization is still growing. They're now collaborating with major production companies to arrange special celebrity visits.
Starting small has led to big things for Lollipop. As the organization expands, so does its impact. Since its founding, Lollipop has had screenings in 26 states around the country.
They've even got actors like Anne Hathaway and Craig Ferguson on their advisory boards. But it's not the big names that make the organization special. It's what happens in those hospital wards when a red carpet is rolled out (yes, an actual red carpet) and everyone is smiling from ear to ear.
They also have new programming: Lollipop's music program, Rhythm of Hope, matches youth with music professionals who help them form their own "bands," create original music, and record the performances as a keepsake for families. There are also animation days, in which youth get to meet with the creators of their favorite cartoons. They've even had celebrities make special visits.
For Iocolano, seeing how deeply a movie or cartoon can affect them reminds her that giving back doesn't always have to be a big gesture for it to matter. "People get hung up on needing to do something big all the time," she says. "Just start small."
Simple things like movies and music can act as an escape from reality, even momentarily. And for youth struggling with illnesses, an escape like that can mean a lot.
Those happy moments keep them going, even when it gets tough. While doctors can treat the physical illnesses that someone is up against, it's efforts like these that help mend their spirits.
"We raise their spirits in the hope that they can fight a little harder," Iocolano says.
In a hospital ward, it's too easy to forget there's a great big world on the other side, especially when you see so little of it from a hospital bed. But a connection to the outside world — whether it's film, music, or a beloved cartoon character — can help youth thrive and remind them that there's so much worth fighting for.
Update 6/7/2018: Newer figures for the number of movies shown and states where screenings have been held were added after publication.