Seven sets of parents received big news last month from officials at Advocate Children's Hospital in Park Ridge: Their children, all undergoing treatment for serious illnesses, had been chosen for an all-expense-paid trip to Arizona to meet Chicago Cubs players during spring training and attend a game.
The hard part? They had to keep it a secret.
"I wanted to tell somebody but I really couldn't," said Tiffany Holiday, whose 13-year-old son, Jonathan, suffers from sickle cell disease and is at the hospital regularly to manage his pain.
She and her husband, Kenneth Holiday, resolved not to tell Jonathan and his little sister, Layla, anything until Monday morning, when they left their Bartlett home for the Cubs front office building next to Wrigley Field.
"His sister thought we were going to 'The Ellen Show,'" Tiffany said, referring to the talk show that films in California. "She's like, 'Are we going to Ellen?' I said, 'You'll see when you get there.'"
Once there, Jonathan and six other children watched a personalized video message from Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks inviting them and their families to spring training in Mesa.
Joining the Holidays will be Angel Martinez, 9, from Lake in the Hills, Kyrell Nodora, 11, from McHenry, Morgan Meiszner, 13, from Orland Park, Mia Martin, 11, from Kankakee, Joey Pachowicz, 11, from Norridge, and Billy Southerton, 11, from Des Plaines, and their respective families.
Kenneth Holiday said the surprise came at a particularly good time for his son.
"I think it is a great opportunity for Jonathan because just a couple days ago he was having a semi-crisis so it's rewarding for him," Kenneth Holiday said.
Joey Pachowicz and Billy Southerton became friends while both were receiving treatment at the hospital for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
"They have treatment at the same time so they hang out and play video games, I hope they'll be lifelong friends," Deana Pachowicz said. "They will be at each other's wedding, we'll make sure of it."
After the big surprise, Clark the Cub burst into the room and helped hand out Cubs backpacks with T-shirts and hats inside for the seven children, their siblings and their parents.
Kelly Jo Golson, the chief marketing officer for Advocate, said this is the third time hospital officials have sent children and their families to spring training. The group will fly to Phoenix on Thursday; American Airlines and Sheraton Hotels have joined the Cubs and Advocate as sponsors to make the trip possible. Friday, they'll hang out with the team and have one-on-one time with players. On Saturday, they will attend the spring home opener at Sloan Park in Mesa.
"These experiences really do make a difference," Golson said. "It's just so rewarding to be able to do something like this for these kids. They really have so many struggles."