Lori Wiener, the co-director of the Behavioral Health Core and the head of the Psychosocial Support and Research Program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), holds a special place in her heart for The Children’s Inn at NIH, especially during the holiday season.
When The Inn celebrated it’s first Christmas in 1990, Lori, a Children’s Inn founder and board member, and her family spent all night stuffing stockings for each of the families staying at The Inn. Lori helped make special arrangements for Santa to visit and for the residents to have a delicious Christmas brunch, catered by Design Cuisine – who still help with the event 25 years later.
Over the years, many volunteers and staff have joined forces with Lori and her two children to help stuff stockings and gather gifts before Christmas day. In recent years, the staff has begun a tradition of collecting wish lists from all families who will be at The Inn on Christmas Day. Before the holiday, the wish lists are fulfilled and wrapped in large Santa-style sacks for each family with a personalized nametag attached. In the middle of the night, Lori and her family deliver the stockings in front of each room and arrange the bags along the staircases and balconies around the lobby creating an extraordinary sight.
Among present unwrapping and digging through stocking surprises, other Christmas activities have historically included a harp player, Christmas bingo, and a candy cane hunt. Behind the scenes, Lori admits that the toughest part of the season is balancing the organization of all of the logistics to make Christmas run smoothly each year.
“I tried to ask the families how they spend the holidays, because everyone has their own traditions from when to open presents to when they wake up,” says Lori, who is constantly challenging herself to make it feel more like home for everyone.
Part of the balancing act of Christmas at the NIH is how to include the guests required to stay in the hospital, either in the inpatient unit or in intensive care. In addition to making rounds along The Inn corridors, Lori and her team make rounds at the Clinical Center, working closely with hospital staff to make sure that they are aware of everyone who can’t get to The Inn to open presents.
So what happens after the gifts are unwrapped, bingo has been played and brunch is devoured? Lori makes sure this truly is a holiday to remember by taking family portraits. As a photographer on the side, Lori can’t help but use her talent to capture the joy of Christmas. “In the long run, these are memories,” she says. “They are pictures of a time when they were happy and together. That’s priceless.”
When asked how she manages to commit to such an event along with her full time job at the Clinical Center and her home life, she says, “It comes down to learning how to be 100% here when you’re here and 100% at home when you’re home.” Her three-hour round trip commute each day to get to the NIH from her home in Annapolis and back allows for Lori to have that transition time between her work and home life.
Yet Lori’s family and The Inn are far from separated. Her children have never missed celebrating a Children’s Inn Christmas except when her son was a part of the Peace Corps. Lori’s daughter has always been an enthusiastic member of the Christmas planning team. Even at six-years-old, she begged her mom, “Don’t tell anyone that Santa didn’t bring the presents!”
When it comes to all of the new projects and opportunities that the NIH provides, Lori says, “It’s hard to say no to exciting things and it’s also an honor and a privilege.” While she can’t take on every project at once, Lori is always grateful for what she can contribute to the NIH community- including late night stocking stuffing and capturing shots of Zilly The Inn’s therapy dog in a Santa hat.