Louisa Christy, 12, said she was "in a deep funk" before learning about the Lollipop Theater Network

By Joelle Goldstein
February 05, 2021 08:10 PM
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A nonprofit organization is bringing joy to children who are battling severe illnesses in hospitals — one storytime session at a time.

Evelyn Iocolano tells PEOPLE (the TV Show!) that she helped co-found Lollipop Theater Network in 2001 alongside Janis Fischer, a Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center volunteer.

The nonprofit organization, based in Los Angeles, focuses on "bringing current movies and entertainment to children confined to hospitals nationwide due to chronic or life-threatening illnesses," according to their website.

"[The kids] were able to see all the advertisements on television for the next movie that was out, but they knew that they couldn't see it because they couldn't leave the hospital," Iocolano explains on Friday's episode. "So we would go in their rooms, screen the movie... roll out a red carpet and hand them movie tickets."

Over the years, Iocolano estimates they've screened more than 475 movies for a network of about 30 hospitals.

Lollipop Theater Network Adapts to COVID Pandemic
Louisa Christy
| Credit: Lollipop Theater Network

Celebrities have joined the fun, participating in Zoom meet and greets known as Storytime Sessions. Zendaya, Anne Hathaway, Tiffany Haddish, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Tim Allen, Busy Philipps, Henry Winkler, Zoe Saldana and Jack Black have all taken part, according to Iocolano.

"It just blew their minds," recalls Iocolano, who works as the executive director for Lollipop Theater Network.

When the pandemic hit in March, Iocolano says the organization was forced to switch its events to Zoom. Still, they've managed to increase to approximately 50 hospitals nationwide and do 300 Storytime Sessions since March — tripling their reach in the process.

"They'll come on and they'll read a children's book, normally a younger version book, where we have pictures that we can show the kids," Iocolano says of the celebrities. "And then when they're done with story time, there's a Q&A session, so… they get to talk directly to their heroes. It's pretty amazing."

Adds Iocolano: "When we tune into our Zoom, we see kids from all over the country. Some of the pediatric patients are at home and some are in hospitals. And it's heartbreaking, it's painful to see them in some of the situations we're in. But then when our guest comes on, the smiles that come across their faces make this just completely worthwhile."

One of the patients who has been positively influenced by the Lollipop Theater Network is a 12-year-old girl named Louisa Christy.

Lollipop Theater Network Adapts to COVID Pandemic
Louisa Christy
| Credit: Lollipop Theater Network

According to Iocolano, Louisa — who has a primary immunodeficiency called Common Variable Immune Deficiency (CVID) and Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) — recently sent her a letter thanking her for all the good Lollipop has done.

Prior to COVID-19, Louisa was active and took part in dance, music and theater classes. However, because of her illness, doctors told her she had to remain indoors.

"I was definitely in a deep funk," Louisa recalls. "I never really felt depression before, and it was very hard for me and I didn't really know how to deal with it, because my friends weren't contacting me very often."

"It was very lonely and I didn't really have a lot of things I could do," she continues. "It was just a lot to deal with."

Her mom, Cindy Christy, says she felt the impact that COVID-19 had left on her daughter.

"This child who always brought light to everyone's life… I'm just seeing her sink," she notes. "And she stood in the kitchen one day and she just said, 'What is my purpose anymore? Why am I even here?' … And that's when I knew something had to change."

Cindy says she reached a child life specialist at Cure 4 the Kids, a nonprofit focused on finding cures and preventing childhood diseases, for help. It was then that she was directed to the Lollipop initiative.

"Lollipop Theater Network saved our girl," Cindy says. "They're the reason she got out of bed this summer… She's gone back to art, and the drawings and illustrations and everything that they have brought."

"I come in and she's with Debbie Allen dancing or all of a sudden she's like, 'Oh yeah, Shawn Johnson East and her husband, they're on,'" Cindy continues. "I'm like, 'You're talking to an Olympian?' And she's like, 'Oh, they're so great!'"

"There are so many different people that have brought so much," she adds. "Just an hour of their time has changed so many kids' lives across the country. I can't thank them enough because these kids, they need something. We don't know when we're going to be able to get out again."

Though she's gotten to interact with several celebrities through the Storytime Sessions, Louisa says there have been two encounters that stood out among the rest.

"When I got to Zoom with Josh Gad, I was very excited," she shares. "I was given the chance to interact with him, ask him questions, and I even asked him a question about a deleted song from Frozen 2 and he was actually impressed that I knew about it. I made him laugh."

Her other favorite moment? Meeting Christopher Jackson from the original cast of Hamilton.

"His voice is phenomenal and it was so amazing," Louisa says. "I got to... ask him a million questions. He showed me a prop from when he worked on the show. It was really amazing."

Adds her mom: "She was beside herself. Hamilton has been one of her favorites. We had a Hamilton birthday party outside, which was just the five of us out in the backyard... so when Lollipop gave her that experience, that pushed her over the edge."

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Louisa has also done drawing sessions, where she's learned how to draw step-by-step.

"It made me feel less lonely," she explains. "It even helped me discover my hobby again, drawing. These people have really inspired me to just go further and try my best."

"This has by far been the very best thing for these kids that I have ever come across," Cindy says.

As she looks ahead to the future, Louisa has a message for kids like her who may be struggling right now or feeling isolated.

"Don't lose hope," she says. "We'll come out of this one day — even if it might be a year, it might be two — but we're going to get out of it eventually. And we're just got to try our best and live life to the fullest."

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