Eight-year-old Jalen Thompson’s face lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw his surprise Monday evening.
The third-grader returned home from Freedom Elementary School to find his family’s northeast Colorado Springs rental home decorated for the holidays, as if by Santa’s elves.
Jalen’s parents, Karen and Chad Thompson, his 23-month-old brother, Dexter; neighbors and friends looked on as Sturgeon Electric workers flipped the switch to reveal the house and a roughly 40-foot pine tree in the front yard blazing with sparkling multicolored lights.
Just before dark, a speechless but smiling Jalen stepped out of his dad’s car and into a big hug from Santa Claus in front of the group gathered on the sidewalk.
“Three ... two ... one ... Merry Christmas, Jalen!” roared the group as the lights came on while snow fell lightly on the scene, right on cue.
The Thompson family — Jalen in particular — needed some holiday cheer, and the Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation and Sturgeon Electric planned the surprise installation, with lights donated by Blazer Electric Supply.
On April 10, Jalen was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer that affects the body’s white blood cells. He immediately was put on an aggressive three-year treatment course including chemotherapy.
Jalen’s parents noticed last March that the boy was limping a bit and seemed weak. Then they found a swollen lymph node on his neck, and their doctor referred them to Children’s Hospital Colorado for testing.
“They gently let us know that he had leukemia,” Karen Thompson said.
After a nine-day stay at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, Jalen has completed many of his treatments in the hospital’s Briargate office. A new Children’s Hospital Colorado now is being built in Colorado Springs.
Jalen had never even taken a pill, but suddenly he needed rigorous chemotherapy. The family credits the hospital’s experts for helping them through.
“Children’s Hospital Colorado knows exactly what Jalen’s needs are, exactly how to take care of him,” Karen Thompson said. “Every single nurse, every doctor we’ve encountered there has been very kind. Jalen loves going to Children’s. He know it’s all about him. They really do make him feel like he’s No. 1.”
Now seven months into his treatment plan, which included weekly chemotherapy infusions, Jalen is doing well. He’s an active boy who loves math and science and calls himself a “master builder of Legos,” his mom said.
“Since April, with all the meds and stuff he’s had to take, it’s been draining for Jalen. Normally he’s such a hyper kid, so it’s that much more noticeable when his energy is down,” she said. “We are thankful for his treatment and how well it’s going. He only has to go once every 10 days now, and after January he’ll be on maintenance.”
Jalen loves school but had to miss a lot of it this year. The bright boy has returned to the classroom more regularly in recent weeks.
“At first he lost a lot of weight. It was hard for him to keep things down when he was having meds constantly pumped into his body,” his mom said. “He does not let it stop him. He was at first embarrassed about his port, but now he’s ready to talk about it. His class had a lot of questions for him. And he’s not shy about it anymore.”
His parents, aunt and little brother shaved their heads in a show of unity when he lost his hair to chemo.
“We let him know how serious it is. But he’s such a brave kid. He takes it so well, and he keeps going. It’s his life now,” his mother said. “I don’t know how he does it. He’s just in a good place and has a lot of love in his heart.”
Jalen will be a 2019 ambassador for Children’s Hospital Colorado, sharing his story with other sick children.
The family is preparing to buy and move into their first home, near Jalen’s school, in January, so they had planned to forgo much holiday decorating — making Monday’s surprise even sweeter.
“Last week, Jalen and I talked about the neighbors’ Christmas lights. He said, ‘I wish there were more lights we could see,’” Karen said Friday, during arrangements for the surprise.
“He loves holidays, loves to decorate. ... He understands that this year, there’s a lot we don’t have time for. So when he sees the yard all lit up, he’s going to be over the moon.”
Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation came up with the idea to literally light up the family’s lives for the holiday season. They approached Sturgeon, one of the subcontractors working on the new hospital.
“We wanted to create this magical moment to bring light and hope to Jalen this season,” said Ann Fenley, the foundation’s corporate partnerships manager.
“We’ve done a few things with Children’s before, but never anything like this,” said Jason Boyle, Sturgeon project manager in Colorado Springs. “My whole team is really excited to do this for the Thompson family. We like to be part of the community and give back.”
While Jalen was at school Monday, a crew of Sturgeon installers with two bucket trucks got to work decorating the house and giant tree.
“I estimate there’s 3,000 lights on the tree alone,” Boyle said.
The installation remained dark until Jalen returned home about 5 p.m., and then Sturgeon electrified the display. The lights flickered off for an instant, then went on for good.
“It’s so much better than a gift,” Karen said. “Every night we’ll be able to go out there and take a look at the lights.”
The Denver-based Sturgeon Electric is credited with creating the very first outdoor holiday lighting display in 1914. The owner’s son lay ill on the second floor of their Denver home and couldn’t see the family Christmas tree, so his father, David Dwight “D.D.” Sturgeon, dipped some light bulbs in red and green paint, strung them on electric lines and draped them on a tree outside the boy’s window, the story goes. Neighbors soon adopted the practice, and the rest is history.
Monday’s surprise for Jalen kicked off the hospital foundation’s Give Comfort & Joy fundraiser to inspire year-end giving. Shop corporate partners Ace Hardware, Good Buy Gear, Jimmy John’s at 9275 N. Union Blvd., Alpine Buick GMC South and Chuck E. Cheese’s through Friday, and part of the proceeds will benefit the new hospital.
“I’m glad Children’s Hospital is out here in Colorado Springs. I can’t imagine going to Aurora all the time,” Karen said. “The last thing a sick child wants is to go on a long car ride after a treatment.”
The $165 million hospital, taking shape beside UCHealth Memorial North, will make treatment more accessible to young patients from southeast Colorado, western Kansas and northern New Mexico.
Construction began in May 2017. The 294,000-square-foot, five-story building will have a 50-bed neonatal intensive care unit, 48 beds for pediatric surgery and pediatric intensive care, eight operating rooms, and 31 emergency exam rooms, among other amenities.
Contact the writer, 476-1602.