‘They still get the same feeling’: UNC-Chapel Hill’s A Moment of Magic captures pre-pandemic spark

By Jared McMasters

When walking into the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill last October, Heidi Kreis forced a smile across her face.

Kreis, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time, slogged through one of those days. She had the stress of exams and schoolwork lingering in the back of her mind, and a 20-pound blond wig resting on her head that strained her neck.

The 45 minutes Kreis spent applying makeup and squeezing into her costume multiplied her impatience by the second. But, she still encouraged herself, saying it would just be for two hours and to do her best.

“Truthfully, I did go in with a bad attitude,” she said.

Kreis’ is typically the one brightening peoples’ moods through her work with UNC-CH’s chapter of A Moment of Magic. It is a nationwide nonprofit organization that sends volunteers to their local hospitals dressed as superheroes or fairytale princesses to visit children with serious illnesses.

But, in this instance, 4-year-old Mia Ivey was the one cheering up Kreis. About six months prior to Kreis’ visit, doctors diagnosed the little girl with Stage IV Neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer most commonly found in young children typically originating around the kidneys.

Being days after Mia’s fourth birthday, Kreis arrived to see a miniature replica of herself coming out to greet her near the front entrance at Ronald McDonald House. The 4-year-old donned a wig woven together with yellow yarn, a lavender-colored dress, and carrying a handful of Rapunzel dolls.

Kreis’s weary smile relaxed into a natural one.

The college student had intended to only visit for about two hours but ended up staying for five. The two princesses spent the time enjoying a game of hide and seek in the building’s massive courtyard before heading inside. Kreis showered Mia with gifts of coloring books, Play-Doh, and even more dolls.

“It took [Mia’s] mind off what she was going through,” Ivy Ivey, Mia’s mother, said. “To this day, she still talks about when they visited, and she’ll tell people she got to meet a princess.”

It’s all these countless experiences that make the UNC-CH senior’s time in A Moment of Magic worthwhile.

Before College: ‘The Magic of Camp’

Since middle school, Kreis has gone out of her way to be a pillar of support for others.

After spending her childhood summers attending camps with her older brother, Scott, she jumped at the opportunity to become a counselor in training at Camp Kanata, an overnight camp in Wake Forest. After two summers of training, Kreis earned a certification to supervise her own troop of campers a few years before she arrived at UNC.

For most teenagers, spending 10 weeks under the burden of on-call shifts at an overnight camp, sharing a log cabin with nearly a dozen screaming elementary schoolers, and preparing group activities for kids with fleeting attention spans sounds like a terrific way to ruin a summer.

Not for Kreis.

“That probably was one of the biggest parts of my life, especially growing up through high school,” she said. “Camp was something I looked forward to, and those are the friends I really love.”

During one of her final summers working at Camp Kanata, a social worker dropped off 10-year-old Grace. She had very few belongings, which was a rarity at a camp that costs parents a grand per week.

“Heidi was always really good at working with the kids who really needed a little more attention in order to have the best time that they could,” Scott said.

At the start of that week, all 350 campers took part in the standard boys versus girls cheer-off. Grace isolated herself while the rest of the girls shouted, “We are young girls, strong girls, living on a lake going to take on the world someday” to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

Kreis made it her mission to take Grace under her wing for the rest of the week, slowly incorporating her into group activities with the rest of the campers. By Friday, the young girl was braiding her friends’ hair, exchanging school emails to stay in touch, and screaming “Angels, butterflies, daisies, too, we’re gonna rock this house for you” in the cheer-off rematch.

“As the week went on, things got really fun for her,” Kreis said. “She saw the magic of camp, which is a different type of magic from A Moment of Magic, but it’s still a great feeling.”

How COVID Impacted A Moment of Magic

Local hospitals have understandably transformed into impenetrable fortresses over the last seven months.

Many of the young patients visited by A Moment of Magic volunteers are immunocompromised, so limiting exposure to the outside world is a top priority for staff members. Those barriers are taking a toll on the Chapel Hill chapter’s progress that had been building since starting in 2018.

In-person visits switched over to 30-minute chats over Zoom. The group’s fashion show fundraiser, an event that would’ve allowed 30 kids to walk a runway dressed as their favorite characters, generated $5,000 in donations before COVID-19 forced the organizers to call it off. Executive members like Kreis, who now serves as the chapter’s Vice President, spend their days worrying about who will fill their positions in the future; the foundation doesn’t have opportunities to show new members the extent of its capabilities.

“Without all the momentum from going to club meetings to just being on Zoom, it’s hard to know what the future of this chapter will look like here,” chapter President Julia Drahzal said.

The organization is still doing whatever it can to try to replicate that pre-pandemic spark.

Kreis is part of a team that operates the chapter’s new hotline phones for patients to schedule calls with different characters. She oversees several of the foundation’s subcommittees, such as a fundraising group that just organized a trivia night event less than two weeks ago. She also helped implement book readings for children through Facebook live streams to help capture that original sense of joy in-person visits can bring.

And for some, it’s all working.

“[My kids] have really enjoyed the Zoom meetings, and I feel like they still get the same feeling during and after it,” Ivey said.

Staying in touch, regardless of any hurdles, in a socially isolated world is what helps Kreis keep those personal connections with former visitors, like Mia.

Kreis sent the Ivey family a painting of Rapunzel’s castle that still hangs on Mia’s wall three months after her doctors announced she was cancer-free.

“Rapunzel gave it to me,” Mia tells anyone who points it out.

edited by Jackie Sizing