'Ecumenical Brigade' continues 53-year-old tradition

There’s nothing very jolly about spending the holidays in a hospital bed — especially if you are battling cancer. But, local businesswoman Fran Epstein knows exactly how to make Christmas Day merry and bright again. It’s something she’s been doing for patients at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center since 1967.

It started with Epstein’s mother,  Honey, who was in charge of coordinating weekly themed parties for pediatric patients at the hospital. One week, the celebration might involve leis and ukuleles, grass skirts and special Hawaiian-themed cupcakes. The next week, the party might revolve around the rodeo with red bandanas and cowboy hats and, maybe, a country western singer or a representative of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

“You could imagine what our house looked like with all the things she would order for the children,” Epstein said. “But, it was amazing!”

Every Wednesday, the theme would change, but one thing remained constant: the children looked forward to the party all week and were delighted when Wednesday arrived.

And, then the holiday season came, and the head of volunteer services told Honey Epstein that nothing special was planned for Christmas Day; the staff would be off and the office closed, and only a skeleton crew of medical personnel would be on hand.

Sadly, that meant patients ––children and adults alike ––would sit in their rooms surrounded by medical monitors instead of stockings and Christmas decorations. Some were patients too sick to go home on a 24-hour holiday pass. Others had come for treatment from far away ––  some from other countries –– and might not have family nearby to visit. So, Honey Epstein sprang into action.

“My family is Jewish, and we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we would be happy to come up and visit the patients,” Epstein’s mother said.

There were 125 patients remaining in the hospital that Christmas morning in 1967, and the Epstein family visited every one of them, handing out stockings donated by the Red Cross and newspapers that Volunteer Services had ordered.

Epstein’s father, Stanley, called their group “The Jewish Brigade," and the name remained for a decade,  as more and more of their friends in the Jewish community stepped up to volunteer.

At the same time, M.D. Anderson was expanding, add-ing new wings, so the number of patients increased yearly. Over the next few years, volunteers of all faiths stepped up to help. Some were former patients and other cancer survivors who wanted to give back.

“My dad then renamed us ‘The Ecumenical Brigade’ and that’s what it’s been every since,” Epstein said.
Then, a surplus of donated teddy bears helped launch a new tradition. One year, there were more teddy bears than there were pediatric patients, so the plan was to distribute them to adults, as well.

“My dad walked into one of the rooms where there was a gentleman in his 70s. My dad handed him a teddy bear, and he just hugged it and started to cry,” Epstein said. “He told my dad this brought back so many memories.”

Afterwards, the volunteers decided giving out teddy bears should be a regular part of their holiday mission, and Volunteer Services began to include them in its budget.

Over the years, other gifts have included stockings, newspapers, nutcrackers, handmade blankets and small pillows to offer comfort and support for patients whose arms had intravenous catheters (IVs) inserted. There are always boxes of chocolates for the nurses, too.

“We also serve a complimentary Christmas luncheon to all patients and their families –– turkey and dressing, side dishes and pie provided by the hospital’s catering department,” Epstein said. A separate luncheon focuses on the culinary tastes of pediatric patients, she added.

Marisa Nowitz has been helping Epstein coordinate the delivery of gifts to pediatric patients for several years,  and she and her brother, Blake Minor, have been volunteering since they were teenagers. Nowitz remembers a very special gift delivery more than 15 years ago.

“It was when Tickle Me Elmo had just come out, and the toy was really hard to get and very expensive,” Nowitz recalled. “We took one into the room of a little two-year-old girl, and I have never forgotten how excited she got. She lit up like I had never seen and was giggling and smiling, which made her parents smile.

“My dad and I were both crying happy tears for them,” Nowitz said. “You could feel the joy radiating from that little girl, and we knew it wasn’t something she was feeling a lot of at that time, so it was a really special moment.”

Heartwarming memories like that — and the memory of her parents — have kept Epstein motivated to continue this 53-year-old holiday tradition — now with a team of 80 volunteers serving about 500 patients.

“My mother and my father were the most amazing, selfless people I have ever known: I do this volunteer work at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center every Christmas to carry on their legacy and their tradition,” she said. “I do it for the patients, but also in loving memory of my parents.”

Deborah Quinn Hensel is a freelance journalist and staff reporter at Houston Woman Magazine.  

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