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Parents, Children Fighting Cancer weather the storm

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (AFNS) --

On a cold and gloomy winter afternoon, thick, gray clouds loomed overhead. Parents, with their children in tow, quickly escape to the shelter of a nearby aircraft hangar. A safe-haven for those seeking refuge from the elements as guests are welcomed with friendly smiles, music, Christmas lights and balloons.

Inside, this winter wonderland celebration has been created especially for well-deserving children and their families who are weathering a storm of their own -- fighting cancer.

The winter wonderland-themed Parents and Children Fighting Cancer, or PCFC, Christmas party started in 1987, when a family stationed here had a child who was diagnosed with cancer.

Jeannette Ruffing, the family support center director at the time, heard about all the children who were registered patients at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, or WRNMC.

She wanted to do something to help, said Janet Grampp, the Fisher House manager here.

It was then that Ruffing decided to host the very first Christmas party for those families.

PCFC is a nonprofit organization that provides direct support to families: from house cleaning to education materials, grants for bone marrow transplants and sperm bank donations, and excursions to theme parks and other attractions.

This year, more than 40 military families and 45 hospital staff from the Walter Reed Pediatric Oncology Ward gathered for the 26th Annual PCFC Christmas party in a hangar here.

"This is an opportunity to celebrate the season, let the families know that they have the support and love of an entire community and to let the children just enjoy a day away from treatment," Grampp said.

Grampp has been the lead in planning and organizing the event for the past 20 years. This large undertaking is the culmination of many big-hearted individuals.

The Fisher House, Andrews, PCFC, and various organizations, donated their time and resources for the event. More than 300 volunteers worked to make this day possible.

When you see how an aircraft hangar can be transformed in to a Christmas wonderland, it's pretty spectacular, Grampp said.

Attending the party this year was Staff Sgt. Forrest Arndt, a fire inspector with the 11th Civil Engineering Squadron. He attended the party with his wife Lindsey and their four young sons.

Arndt became involved with PCFC in the Fall of 2010, shortly after he and his family were stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where their oldest son, Zavian, was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 3.

Zavian was medically evacuated to Andrews, with is mother, where he started receiving treatment at WRNMC. Arndt joined his family shortly after and they stayed at the Fisher House for about four months where they met Grampp.

She is an amazing person and employee, Arndt said. She helped us so much and made sure the place was a suitable home for the occupants.

The Arndts celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas and the birth of their third son, Draius, in the Fisher House.

"We developed friendships with other occupants and cooked meals together.” Arndt said. “It was a special time in our lives even though we were going through a tough time.”

Zavian, now 6, has undergone therapy with a positive spirit. I think that is because the boy is strong-willed and always thinks he's in charge, he said. Zavian has dealt with the illness by not letting it define him.

"And now, you would hardly be able to tell that the boy was on the verge of death," Arndt said.

"Seeing the children who have struggled through cancer therapy now having a bright, shining smile is what the event is all about," Arndt said.

Before the party, the Arndt family had only seen other families at the hospital, but being at the event was a great opportunity to meet up with others going through a similar situation.

There's something special with these organizations, year after year they don't hesitate to help, said retired Navy Capt. Stephen Jordon, the vice president of PCFC.

Jordon is serving his second term in this position. The first time was in 2007 when he was going through Naval Attaché training in the Washington, D.C. area. His daughter Emma, 5 at the time, was diagnosed with Wilms' Tumor, a cancer of the kidneys.

She fought the cancer for a year and a half, receiving numerous types of chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant. There was a point where she was cancer-free for three months, and then it relapsed. They then went into hospice care.

She had just turned seven when she passed away while on her Make-A-Wish trip to Disneyland in Orlando, Fl.

Her doctors did not think she could make the trip, but she was adamant that she and her three bothers would go, he said.

The PCFC party gives families a break from cancer for a few hours.

"You see the kids' faces light up when they see Santa come strolling off that C-37(A) jet and down the red carpet; that's a pretty magical thing,” Jordon said.

Andrews personnel spent their off-duty time setting up, breaking down and interacting with guests at the static displays.

"Practically every organization on base was represented in some way, whether it was equipment or manpower, they were all there," Grampp said. For our military personnel it is the most-anticipated volunteer event of the year.

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