Published: October 27, 2013
As Air Force Academy Cadet Missy Byrd rallied her troops, some looked rough, with blood dripping from their arms and necks.
But morale was high.
"Good job, guys," said Byrd, a sophomore, to a handful of energetic cadets dressed as bearded clowns, injured prisoners and zombie airmen who were manning a haunted house at Arnold Hall.
"Make sure you drink plenty of water. It's behind the graveyard."
Byrd and her motley crew were among the 65 cadets who helped plan, set up and run the Oct. 19 Halloween Carnival and Haunted House Great Escape, a Starlight Children's Foundation event for chronically and terminally ill children.
Starlight aims to boost the morale of sick children by hosting events that bring healing through play and distraction therapy.
"We want kids to realize that they can still have joy and fun in life," said Kendra Patterson, program coordinator for Starlight in Southern Colorado.
The academy, which has hosted the event for seven years, is an ideal venue because it comes with a ready-made pool of dependable, respectful and resourceful volunteers, Patterson said.
"They sign up, they bring ideas, they consistently work doing whatever they can," she said. "It's a nice partnership."
Two hundred and sixty attended the event, she said.
As Byrd's crew ensured that the haunted house was wheelchair accessible, freshman Cadet Brent Matherne stood outside in a prison jumpsuit, his hands shackled.
"I just escaped prison and am about to go into my hideout," he told a group of kids and parents as they waited to enter. "There are a lot of my dead friends in there like ghosts and wolves."
Matherne signed up for haunted-house duty because he enjoys Halloween - and because being around kids reminds him of his sister back home in New Orleans, La.
Byrd pitches in at every Starlight event for a similar reason: The kids remind her of her cousin in Decatur, Ga., who has autism.
"I don't get to go home a lot because of basketball," said Byrd, a forward on the women's team at the academy. "If I don't get to, this is what I do because this is what I'd be doing for my family back home."
As bubblegum pop tunes and the smell of hot, buttered popcorn wafted through the gym, children made their way to carnival games, bounce houses and treat stations by foot, on crutches or in wheelchairs.
Angelica Medrano spooned vanilla pudding into the mouth of her 4-year-old son, Jesus, who sat in his wheelchair dressed as Elmo.
Jesus has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, as well as issues with his kidneys, bladder, heart and vision. He also has seizures and is fed primarily through a tube.
Medrano loved the Halloween bash because, like all of Starlight's events, it incorporated her other children as well.
"I love that they make it easy for my whole family to attend," Medrano said. "My other kids miss out on a lot."
Across the gym, Dana Thomas and her son exchanged smiles.
Henry, 4, was diagnosed with leukemia this year. Due to frequent chemotherapy treatments, he has no hair - a trait kids often comment on.
Not that day, Thomas said as she proudly eyed her bald Power Ranger.
"He was excited that he'd be around kids who didn't have hair," Thomas said. "It makes him feel so different.
"It's great for him to be around kids going through things also."