PINE BUSH - Amanda Alves' eyes were tearful as she watched her two sons, Landon and Parker, talk to Santa and open early holiday gifts at a quaint photography studio set up in an old church.
Alves drove for more than an hour Thursday evening to get to Wendy Wellington's studio off Pleasant Valley Road in a rural area outside Pine Bush. Wellington hosted 25 families that evening for her 10th annual Magical Moments with Santa that offers families free family portraits with Santa, homemade comfort food and presents.
"This is the best," Landon, 6, said as he opened a Spiderman toy from Santa. His 1-year-old brother, Parker, watched from his mom's lap. "Want me to open yours, Parker?"
Alves found lumps on her neck and collarbone while she was driving in September. By early October, doctors diagnosed her with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She is about two months into her chemotherapy treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Treatment Center.
"It's been a tough road," Alves said. "I'm still trying to keep the Christmas spirit up at home, so this only adds to that."
Kc Healey, 14, of Port Jervis, was the first child to meet Santa on Thursday night. He walked silently to the photography set, his face blank.
His mom, Carol, watched from the back of the room. She explained that he suddenly started having seizures in October that may be related to an ATV crash a year ago. The seizures are so frequent that he has been forced to stay home from school.
"He was happy-go-lucky, now he's a miserable child," Healey said. She laughed when she added that perhaps Wellington's event could help them both get into the Christmas spirit.
Magical Moments with Santa began in 2009 with one family.
Wellington said in 2008, a family paying for Christmas photos came in with their grandmother. When Wellington asked about a young girl sitting off to the side, the grandmother said not to worry about her because they were just babysitting the child.
"That was really sad," Wellington said.
But the woman's grandchildren appeared uninterested in the Christmas photos, so Wellington approached the little girl and asked if she wanted to meet Santa.
"She went over and he said, 'What do you want for Christmas?' " Wellington said. "She looked at him and she had the saddest face and she said, 'Underwear.' "
Wellington later found out the girl was living in a single-parent household with twin infant siblings. Wellington, "Santa" Steve Decker and Wellington's mom gathered donations and asked the family to come back for free Christmas photos and presents.
"I said, 'You know we can do this for a lot more kids than just one family,' and that's how it all started," Wellington said.
About 100 children and 50 local families benefited from this year's two-night event.
"They just need something special in their life, and I realized we can do that for them," Wellington said.