Since 2002, it’s been the mission of the Lollipop Theater Network to bring a light to the lives of hospitalized children. Aided by a board of directors packed with film industry executives—including Carolyn Blackwood, COO at Warner Bros.; Chris Aronson, president of theatrical distribution at Paramount; and Jack Kline, former president and CEO of Christie—for nearly two decades Lollipop has brought film screenings and film stars to LA-area hospitals, enabling children with life-threatening illnesses to experience the magic of the movies.
In March, everything changed. Hospitals closed to outside visitors. Lollipop closed their offices and postponed their annual Superhero Walk, the keystone event in Lollipop’s yearly fundraising slate. And Lollipop looked at the typical number of events they host… and tripled it.
The ramping-up Lollipop has experienced over the last three months wasn’t planned, says co-founder and executive director Evelyn Iocolano. Rather, it was a natural response to an increased need paired with a shift in how Lollipop operates—away from in-person events towards digital ones, where actors, artists, and other industry professionals can interact with hospitalized or outpatient children via Zoom.
When Covid-19 hit the country in March, recalls Iocolano, social media was filled with frantic requests for something to do. Movies to watch, bread to bake, hobbies to learn—anything to cope with the quarantine, not just to fill time but also to help stave off anxieties about the future. “In a really scary time, [people] were looking for things to distract them… It made me think: This is what we’ve been doing for 20 years. These kids that are in hospitals, [even] when there’s no pandemic, they’re fighting for their lives because of cancer, leukemia, heart disease, kidney transplants. They are dealing with that fear, that confinement and isolation and uncertainty.”
All this was made worse by Covid-19, which cut off much of the kids’ connection with the outside world and cut down on opportunities to keep them engaged. And so, days before Los Angeles issued their stay-at-home order, Lollipop put together their first digital one-on-one session, connecting a patient at LAC+USC Medical Center with an animation artist from DreamWorks. “When we finished that call, we were like, ‘There’s something there,’” recalls Iocolano. “I always thought in-person was the only way to do it, because it was real. It was more effective. But these [digital] visits are just as effective, if not more so.”
Logistically, digital visits are less complicated: Time doesn’t need to be found in the talent’s schedule for a long drive to the hospital, and if they’re not up on their immunizations it doesn’t much matter. Geography, too, is less of a concern: since the pandemic hit, Lollipop has expanded their visits to 28 hospitals nationwide.
Between March 20 and June 22, Lollipop hosted over 50 Zoom sessions—typically between four and seven a week—ranging from one-on-one chats to storytimes to lessons with professional artists. (Emmy-winner Debbie Allen even helped Lollipop launch a weekly dance session for healthcare workers.) In the first weeks of the pandemic, most of Lollipop’s sessions were one-on-one; now, they’ve shifted to mostly group sessions, which can reach over 200 children apiece. One of those group sessions was a mid-May screening of Scoob!, followed by a virtual visit with castmembers (pictured below) sweetened by swag from Warner Bros..
Since the Scoob! event, says Iocolano, multiple cast-members have reached out to ask how they can do more visits. “It’s a win-win for everyone. I think the guests really feel that they’re able to give back in a time where they’re confined to their houses, and they’re trying to figure out, ‘How can I help this situation?’ This is a way for them to do it from home. They can really see the impact, and the kids are really enjoying meeting these people that they never would meet.” It’s that interactive component that makes all the difference. The internet is filled with video content for children, but it’s knowing the person at the other end of the Zoom call “actually sees you,” says Iocolano, that makes these events so special.
“These kids are stuck in hospitals. They don’t have that daily interaction. They just have their family—who loves them, but it’s nice to see other people, and it’s nice to be acknowledged. That’s what these sessions have been enabling us to do around the country.” Important, too, is that these children attending group events can see “other kids in their same situation. That’s another part of it: That they’re not alone. There are other people struggling. But when we do these sessions, all of that disappears, and they just become kids. They giggle and they laugh and they say silly things.” (“What’s your favorite food?” and “What’s your favorite animal?” are probably not common interview questions for the actors who have donated their time to Lollipop.}
“The ramping up process was not an intention,” says Iocolano. “You focus, you move forward, and it happens. It’s hard to say no when you see the effect it has.” And the effect that it will continue to have. Even as theaters come back, Iocolano explains, children’s wards at hospitals won’t be open to outside visitors due to the immunocompromised status of their patients. Thus, Lollipop’s virtual efforts will continue, even once in-person events become possible again. In addition to expanding the types of events they provide, Lollipop also plans to expand its fundraising efforts, looking outside the film industry for donors. “This community will always support us however they can, but there are a lot of people who want to be involved with this industry [and] who want to help.”
Over the next few years, as companies and industries attempt to bounce back from the economic impact of Covid-19, Lollipop will rely on individual donors—“whether it’s the the smaller amounts that add up, or to the higher net worth individuals who want to give back and see a difference”—to keep Lollipop going strong, Iocolano explains. “I’m really hopeful that it’s going to be okay. I believe in what we do so much, and I think what’s happened over the past few months has made me believe in it even stronger. I can’t imagine other people wouldn’t want to support it.”