Santa's Hospital Helpers need a little help themselves to load up their sleigh to bring Christmas joy to sick children.
Some children fear that Santa Claus will not find them if they are staying in the hospital around Christmas.
But that's when Santa, Bill Turney, and his hospital helpers do their best work each year to bring joy to a child's face.
The visit of Santa Claus gave the late Josh Pilger's family one last Christmas with him, even though they were in the hospital.
In the fall of 2011, Pilger was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma, a non-Hodgkins cancer of the lymph nodes.
St. Jude doctors gave the Chillicothe resident aggressive chemotherapy, but his condition worsened, leaving him tired from the treatments.
That changed, however, when Santa and his hospital helper elves walked into his hospital room on Dec. 22.
"He just lit up like a candle," Turney said.
Pilger, an Illinois Valley Central High School senior, opened his eyes to gifts of football memorabilia, including an autographed Brian Urlacher football and an autographed jersey.
"If you knew Josh you would know he was a huge Bears fan," said his mom, Cindy Scoon.
The family's plight tugged on the heart strings of Santa Bill, who had lost a child at 17 months. Pilger's mom was facing the same outcome with a child 17 years old.
"I knew what she was going to go through," Turney said.
Pilger's family received the bad news on Christmas Eve that the chemotherapy was not working and their loved one only had days to live. He died Dec. 29.
That last Christmas, full of Santa, Mrs. Claus, elves and presents, remains a strong memory for Pilger's family.
"The Christmas I had with Santa, Bill Turney, was the only and last Christmas I had with my son that year," Scoon said. "I have the deepest respect for this man and his cause as he gave me my last Christmas with Josh. Please donate to Santa so he can bring memories to other families."
Holding their memories of Christmas close to their hearts, Pilger's family is assisting Turney in gathering Christmas presents for the youngest hospital patients.
Turney, a Glasford resident, is in his 17th year collecting the gifts, and said he is on the verge of becoming a 501c3 nonprofit group.
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Turney originally got involved in donating after a church sermon encouraged him to give what he could. He saw that a hospital was wanting football cards to hand out to the children there, and he collected them, so he donated them.
He began collecting sports memorabilia after that for the cause, which has continued to grow.
In the last few years, he and his helpers have raised about $20,000 for gifts to be delivered to children staying at the Children's Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, UnityPoint Health-Methodist and Pekin Hospital.
This year, however, the group's regular benefit at Christy's Place in Washington was canceled due to the tornado that ripped through town.
Without that benefit, the group is hoping that residents individually will help out the cause however they can.
Turney is a familiar face at Bears camp as he seeks autographs for the children.
Through the help of a friend, Turney managed to get a few more footballs signed by some of the Chicago Bears football team after they made a stop in Washington.
Signed sports memorabilia are not the only items given out, however.
New toys from infants through teenagers are wanted for the Santa delivery on Dec. 23. Organizers ask for them to not be wrapped.
Residents may drop off new toys at:
• Wendy's Creative Collections, 3225 N. Prospect, Peoria
• The Mattress Doctor, 2818 Court St., Pekin
• Hats off Barber Shop, 4212 S. Airport Road, Bartonville
• Associated Bank, 1007 N. Fourth St., Suite 1, Chillicothe
Monetary donations also may be made out to Santa's Hospital Helpers and dropped off or mailed to any Heritage Bank of Central Illinois in Peoria, Trivoli, Hanna City, Peoria Heights or East Peoria.
All donations should be received by Dec. 20.