By Jennifer Wolf Kam

A Season for Love - For Children at St. Mary's, Volunteers Bring Good Cheer


This month, the grand ballroom at Terrace on the Park in Queens will come alive with music, dancing, and all around good cheer. Rocking to the beat of a disc jockey, parents and their children will take to the floor, dancing, celebrating and reveling in the magical merriment that is the holiday season. But what makes this event even more magical is that the guests of honor are the children from St. Mary’s Hospital for Children's Homecare Division. The hospital treats children from all over the metropolitan area, with those in the Homecare program receiving continuous nursing care in their homes. The annual event, which hosts an average of 800-900 children, is organized and sponsored by The Semantics, a men’s club in Queens dedicated to local philanthropic pursuits. “The party is pretty incredible,” gushes Pat Sterner, assistant director of patient services for the Homecare Division at St. Mary’s. “It’s a lot of work, but when you get there, it’s just an amazing party.” Founded over 30 years ago, The Semantics received their name by accident. According to Lee Cook, a member of the group’s board of directors and a past president, the men were trying to come up with a name that would reflect their humanitarian interests. They tossed about several ideas when someone just blurted out, “It’s really just semantics!” In other words, despite their name, they would still have the same altruistic objectives. And so, with their new name, The Semantics went to work. A member for 28 years, Cook makes one point very clear: “All of our members are volunteers. Everything we collect for the hospital goes directly to the patients and their families." The party at Terrace on the Park is just one of several activities the group sponsors at St. Mary’s during the holiday season. In fact, the largest activity is the holiday gift project. Through this initiative, approximately 1,200 children from Homecare receive Christmas or Hanukkah gifts, wrapped, personalized, and hand delivered by their nurse in time for the holiday season. Cook explains that each nurse gives him a list of their children, with appropriate gift choices. Then, Cook and the team of volunteers begin the enormous task of purchasing and wrapping all of the gifts. Captains are assigned who have the responsibility of acquiring gifts from willing donors. “We start in September,” Cook says, “to ensure that we have all of the gifts by the end of November.” The Semantics also receive help from the accounting honor society at Hofstra University, Beta Alpha Psi. The student members sponsor several hundred children by purchasing gifts for them. Says Cook: “The Hofstra students help tremendously.” Another piece of the St. Mary’s holiday project is the hospital store. In addition to collecting gifts for the children in Homecare, The Semantics purchase gifts that a child can buy for a parent, sibling or other family member. An in-hospital store is set up to help the children “buy” gifts for their loved ones. All of the children who live in the hospital, the children who attend the medical day care program and the children from St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Institute for Children, in Ossining, are invited to shop. The selection of scarves, perfumes, hats, ties and other gift items is arranged on tables to create the feel of an actual store. However, through their generosity, The Semantics ensure that no child will really have to pay for the gift items. Therefore, the focus is on the children’s excitement about their shopping sprees and the joy they derive from buying presents for their families. Volunteers assist the children with choosing the gifts, wrapping them, and creating holiday cards to attach to the packages. This year the group will be purchasing over 600 gift items for the hospital store. The Semantics’ relationship with St. Mary’s goes back many years and seems to be growing stronger with age. “It’s a wonderful facility and it’s our pleasure to help,” Cook says. He also speaks very highly of the nursing staff, all of whom completely devote themselves to the process each year. Cook eagerly mentions the efforts of Peggy Donahue, the executive vice president of community programs, describing her as “totally dedicated to her patients.” As for St. Mary’s, Pat Sterner says: “It’s been a phenomenal experience for us. We are really, really lucky to have them participate.” And that’s not just semantics.