Submissions accepted through Aug. 31
Last year, Joanne Pem spent hundreds of hours volunteering for local organizations, but her absolute favorite cause was making sure families had an unforgettable night on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s (CSVR) “Polar Express” ride. This year, she is starting a program to make sure families in need have an opportunity to experience the fun as well.
The Polar Express program (held in Cuyahoga Valley National Park each winter) takes families with young children on an adventurous ride to the “North Pole” during the winter holiday. The program is so popular that tickets sell out within the first week they are on sale. When Pem saw a post on Facebook describing a grandmother’s search for tickets for her 4-year-old autistic grandson, she jumped into action and was able to get tickets through her contacts at CVSR. She had the opportunity to hand deliver the tickets to the family dressed in her elf costume with her husband as Santa.
“There are not words to describe how my husband and I felt that night,” she said. “We were nervous and excited all at the same time. Once we arrived at the home, the magic of it all took over. Seeing how excited he was and how extremely thankful his family was, we knew that night, this was not going to be a one-time deal. I made sure to volunteer that night the family was on the train. Beforehand, I purchased items from the gift shop to give him once he arrived. I wanted to make sure it was something they would never forget. The grandmother bought him the Polar Express book and asked me to sign it (even before Santa). The entire experience was amazing and beautiful.”
She was so inspired by the little boy’s reaction that she decided to take the idea a step further. She is now holding a contest to give away tickets to a few deserving families in need. Residents from Northeast Ohio are able to nominate a family and submit a short essay on why the family deserves the tickets.
Pem has already gotten submissions for some families with diverse backgrounds and unique struggles. For example, her nominations range from a family with a single mom who is struggling financially, to a family whose son has battled cancer all of his life.
The Polar Express program is highly unique in that the majority of its staff are enthusiastic volunteers like Pem, who started as an elf waving to kids from the ground as the train rolled by. She then wanted to take on more responsibility and stepped up to be a lead elf on the train. She had such a great time that she started recruiting friends to join her, and volunteering for the CVSR’s Polar Express has now become a holiday tradition among her family and friends.
“With having a daughter that is almost 19 years old, the Polar Express brought back all the magic of Christmas.” Pem said. “Seeing the excitement and light in the children’s eyes was what it was all about. It was a truly rewarding and magical experience.”
Pem knows it will be a tough decision to choose between nominations. The entries will first be narrowed down by a vote through her company’s Corporate Responsibility Committee’s executives, then the top candidates will be submitted anonymously to the whole committee for the final round.
She said she is grateful for all the support her friends, family and coworkers have shown to make her idea a reality.
During the railroad’s popular event, staff and volunteers try to make the experience as close as possible to the beloved children’s book, as families are greeted by Santa, elves and more helpers, all while sipping hot chocolate in their pajamas and participating in fun activities.
“I originally was introduced to the Polar Express through EnviroScience’s Corporate Responsibility Committee (CRC),” Pem said. “The volunteer who has the most volunteer hours at the end of the year receives a check in the amount of $250 to be used for the charity of their choice. I was the recipient for the most volunteer hours for 2014. With the $250 and a potluck that was held in February specifically for purchasing Polar Express tickets, I was able to raise enough money to purchase a total of 16 tickets for the 2015 Polar Express, which will give additional families the chance to experience an evening to the North Pole and meeting Santa Claus. Our CRC committee is moved by this opportunity as well, so they have also agreed to provide additional funds to be able to purchase the children of the winning families’ pajamas that they wear on the train as well as additional gifts that are in the works. This has become much bigger than I could have ever imagined and I am extremely grateful and blessed by the support of co-workers, family and friends who have supported this Polar Express idea as it is something that means so much to me.”
The “Polar Express Contest” will run through Aug. 31, 2015. To nominate a family, email Pem at [email protected] with “Polar Express Contest” in the subject line and include the following information:
• Who you are nominating
• Why they are nominated
• How many children and adults are in their family
• The ages of the children
• The location of the family