More than 10,000 scoops donated over the past decade

Sixty-five scoops of ice cream made their way from a local ice cream shop across town to UF Health Shands Hospital, driven and then wheeled to the fourth floor in a large white cooler by Ron Farb.

Farb’s reputation preceded him on Thursday, as did his wares — scoops of vanilla, chocolate, caramel and birthday cake ice cream, packaged individually, for some very special patients.

“Hi, Ron! Is it ice cream day?” Volunteers, nurses, and staff alike asked him at every stop in the hospital.

“Oh, it’s ice cream day!” He answered the same way every time.

But the ice cream wasn’t for any of them. Thursday, the scoops of sweetness from Sweet Dreams Homemade Ice Cream were going to the pediatric cancer patients, just like they have every second Thursday of the month for more than a decade.

It’s the story of how one ice cream shop donates its wares, one man donates his time, and one hospital organizes its staff and volunteers to make some very sick children feel better for an afternoon.

And it was Brianna Mastantuono’s first time. The 8-year-old girl with the light blue-green eyes and the perky smile sat coloring a trick-or-treat page in bright red and orange tones. The little girl sat next to her father in the playroom, while other children played video games and got their faces painted. She ordered a vanilla scoop with M&Ms on top, and talked to the volunteers about Harry Potter while she ate it.

“This is one of our best events,” said Bethany Fisackerly, a child life specialist. “We ask things of these kids that children shouldn’t have to do, but when they come to this playroom, they get to be kids again.”

Twelve more orders came in, and Farb readied the scoops, opening the containers and topping the treat with Oreos, sprinkles or candy, to the patients’ liking. These children couldn’t make it to the playroom that day. They were immunocompromised or having tests done, or in intensive care. But they got their ice cream, just the same.

Sweet Dreams has given Shands more than 10,000 scoops since they first started the pediatric cancer patient ice cream social all those years ago. It started as a paid endeavor, but owner Mike Manfredi said after the first couple of events, he stopped charging.

“This isn’t something that I write off, this isn’t something that I claim; it’s a donation. It’s just something that we do,” Manfredi said. “These kids don’t ask to be sick. They just are. And we try to make the best of it. Some of these kids are in that hospital more than they’re out of it in their lives. They’re waiting for transplants, they’re waiting for miracles.”

The social itself seemed a small miracle, with its Halloween music, orange-and-black streamers, treat buckets full of coloring pages and plastic jewelry, and IV poles strung with festive activities and decorations. The kids were safe there, safe from tests and diagnoses and the endless waiting.

“Hospitals have a lot of waiting, so having a space where they can play is invaluable,” Fisackerly said. “We have to go through a lot of not-happy things here, but the kids are still kids, and it’s amazing to see the world through their eyes.”

Manfredi used to run the ice cream from his shop to Shands himself.

“One of my favorite memories was there was this guy who was there, and he was this massive man, just huge. He was covered in tattoos, and he had this little girl; he was pulling her around in a wagon,” Manfredi said. “His exterior was so hard, but I saw him as this incredible caring person. He was there with his baby, and it was so touching to see him taking care of her.

As Manfredi’s business grew, others took the transportation reins, with Farb being the latest of travel volunteers. As the founder of the Climb for Cancer Foundation, Farb spends his days either climbing the world’s highest peaks to raise money for cancer patients, or here in Gainesville, working to make patients’ lives and their families as comfortable as possible. He’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for patient care and comfort, and once a month, he’s the ice-cream man.

“I’m not supposed to get involved with the families, but it’s not in my nature not to,” Farb said. “I love seeing the smiles on the faces of the kids. Ice cream makes anyone smile, so I’m always happy to do this.”