Toy Story

A 10-year-old cancer patient, comforted by a gift teddy bear collects toys for a group that gives them to other ill children

Spirit of Sharing

November 28, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

For a kid sentenced to the gloom of a cancer ward, it seems a stuffed animal wouldn't mean much.

And that facing the prospect of needles and tubes and scary machines, a plastic action figure would be little consolation.

Not true.

One little girl from Mount Airy will tell you that a plush bear to hug, delivered unexpectedly while she was in the hospital, made quite an impression.

"It didn't make me feel better," says MacKenzie Stuck, a 10-year-old who has battled a brain tumor for two years. "But it cheered me up to get something more than a sticker, something I could play with every day."

MacKenzie was so happy to get the bear from the Cockeysville-based Cool Kids Campaign that even while sick herself, she began collecting toys for the organization to help other children with cancer.

Unlike its parent organization, the Belanger-Federico Foundation, which raises money for cancer research, the two-year-old nonprofit Cool Kids has a more immediate goal: temporarily brightening the lives of hospitalized children.

The Cool Kids Campaign started out taking cakes to young people celebrating their last chemotherapy treatment. The campaign also set up a custom care-package system, where children could go online and fill out a wish list, detailing their clothing size, reading interests, what they like to play with. They were even asked, "If you could have anything in your package what would it be?"

"We wanted to do something where we could have an impact," says Sharon Perfetti, the group's director. "We thought, `Let's help these people just feel a little happier, make their day a little better."

Packages, which cost about $100 each and are distributed through hospitals all over the country, are filled with things kids might want - from Barbie dolls and Legos for younger children to video games and cameras for older ones.

MacKenzie's included a crafts kit for decorating hats and a Magic 8 Ball fortune-teller.

"Kids are kids," Perfetti says. "Whether they're sick or healthy, they like the same things."

Two years ago, doctors discovered MacKenzie's tumor after she felt sick over the Thanksgiving holiday. Ironically, at that time she had been raising money to help another Mount Airy child with cancer, Eric Lerch. Eric, who was 13, passed away in March 2006.

MacKenzie endured debilitating brain surgery and a battery of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. The harsh medicine left her weak but apparently cancer-free. MacKenzie's parents, Sue and Steve Stuck, say she has an 85 percent shot of avoiding a recurrence of cancer.

The Stucks relaxed earlier this month in their purposely cheery home - all bright colors and inspirational reminders. "Hope," reads one silvery sign near the front door. "Wish it, dream it, do it," reads one in the family room, where MacKenzie was sprawled on the floor, going through toys she had collected and was preparing to send on to Cool Kids.

Honey-brown hair that she used to be able to pull into pigtails is growing into a soft shag. MacKenzie finds it too boyish. She compensates with sparkle - rhinestones in her ears, dangling from her wrist, pinned to her sweater.

By encouraging her elementary school to help her, she's collected more than 7,000 McDonald's Happy Meal toys for the cause, and bigger toys, too - such as cases of Build-a-Bears and stuffed Sea World whales. For her birthday in April, she asked that instead of giving her presents, people buy gift cards that she could contribute to Cool Kids.

"[Sick kids] should get more than a sticker," she says. " 'Cause they had to go through much more than anyone could think."

Her mom and dad were thrilled to hear that the gift cards went across the country, buying, among other things, an iPod for a girl in New Jersey and a Thomas the Tank Engine toy for a boy in Indiana.

"It's lousy to be a kid in a hospital, having to go every single week to have chemotherapy that makes you sick and have tubes up your nose and shots - it's lousy," Sue Stuck says. "And you know what, if you have to wake up in the hospital, isn't it just a little better to find a treat on the bed?"

Perfetti says MacKenzie's enthusiasm for collecting toys shows the little tokens really make a difference.

"We're trying to imagine what [kids] want and what they need, but you don't really know unless you're in their shoes," she says. "For Mac to want to turn around and help, that really validates what we do."

In addition to the cakes and care packages, Cool Kids prints a quarterly newspaper that goes to pediatric oncology wards in 200 hospitals nationwide. The organization also hosts events - like outings to baseball games and skating parties with world-figure-skating champion Kimmie Meissner.

The organization is building a nest egg to start a fund to help families who can't keep up with bills like their mortgages and car payments while dealing with a child's cancer.

And even though she's feeling a bit better, MacKenzie is determined to keep helping the other kids who aren't.

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