Rob Pelaez

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Toys For Tots: Giving Kids Hope

Toys For Tots in in its 72nd year.

As the holidays approach, the local chapter of the U.S. Marines-run nonprofit Toys for Tots gears up for another season of gathering donated gifts to give to less fortunate children across Long Island.

Last year more than 220,000 toys were distributed to 110,000 children in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to Garden City Toys for Tots.

“One of my best memories is when I was up in North Shore Hospital delivering toys to the pediatric unit,” retired Marine Major Chuck Kilbride, Long Island’s representative for the past 30 years, told the Levittown Tribune. “There was a little girl who had just gotten her third bone marrow transplant. She looked up at one of the Marines that was with us and told him he was her hero. The Marine took off his medals, pinned them on the little girl and told her, ‘No, you are my hero.’”

Toys for Tots is a nationwide initiative that was the brainchild of a Marine Corps Reserve Major in 1947. Now in its 72nd year, it has about 800 chapters nationwide.

The organization asks for newly wrapped, unopened toys to be donated from October to early December so they are properly distributed along the Island. The organization’s mission is to assist the U.S. Marine Corps in uplifting disadvantaged children at Christmas. The aim is to give these youngsters the hope they need to become responsible, productive, patriotic citizens.

Along with the other men and women who have continued to serve the country by spearheading local branches of the foundation, Kilbride ensures that kids get the toys that they truly require. When visiting the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County several years ago, Kilbride remarked on the fact that the children present require certain toys for their needs.

“We had the opportunity to donate $25,000 worth of toys to help these physically
disabled kids,” he said. “We at the marine core love to put a smile on a kid’s face.”

Donation boxes will be placed in high-traffic public places through the holidays. For more information, visit garden-city-ny.toysfortots.org

Nancy Marx Wellness Center Helps Survivors Overcome

Randy Hight runs the Nancy Marx Cancer Wellness Center.

The Nancy Marx Cancer Wellness Center at the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center in East Hills has been aiding those suffering from cancer since 2005.  

The subject of cancer is a delicate topic, but the center’s staff goes to lengths to ensure people have the proper mental and physical resources needed.

“We try to reduce as many barriers as we can,” says Randy Hight, the center’s director. “It’s the main reason why so many of our programs and opportunities involve no cost, so that anyone who needs help can receive it.”

Most of the programs the center offers to the public are free, such as writing and meditation classes, individual counseling, tailored discussion groups, and various exercise classes. It also provides services such as informational referrals and child care options, to keep the focus on combating cancer.

“Cancer is a challenging disease,” Hight says. “With the support of a collective community and dedicated staff, there should always be reasons for people to have hope.”

Hight, a certified oncology social worker, helps survivors and their families by collaborating with medical professionals and other social workers to ensure that referrals and programs provide people with the best solution. 

“Each family is unique in their own way,” she says. “Just because two people have the same diagnosis does not mean that their situations are parallel. People cope and react to information very differently.”

Word has spread, so that she sees people, Jewish or not, come from across New York State. 

“Depending on what somebody’s current state of cancer is,” Hight says, “I can make referrals to specific facilities closer to them, or ones that may be further, but can more effectively bring them into a state of remission. It’s something we pride ourselves on. Constant contact before, during, and after the process makes it less scary for them, and is more reassuring for us as well.”

Nancy Marx Cancer Wellness Center will hold its  Stronger Than Cancer 5K fundraiser at the Sid Jacobson JCC at 300 Forest Dr. in East Hills. For more information, visit sjjcc.org. The run starts at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 13.

Book Fairies Marks 2 Millionth Book Donation

The Book Fairies celebrated donating their two millionth book at their Freeport headquarters on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019.

Amy Zaslansky held a book drive to donate paperbacks to a Hempstead schoolteacher’s class in 2012. The overwhelming response she received inspired what she called an “Aha! moment.”

The mother of three from Bellmore then founded Book Fairies, a Freeport-based nonprofit that collects reading materials for those in need. What started as one person driving around in a van across Long Island to collect donations has now turned into a mission to fight illiteracy  throughout the New York Metro area. The group donated its two millionth book during a drive on Sunday.

“There is a cycle of poverty that stems from illiteracy.” says Zaslansky, noting that 70 percent of prison inmates can’t read above a third-grade level and 90 percent of welfare recipients are high school dropouts. “We want to break that cycle and have students be achieving to the best of their ability academically. The statistics are so intensely startling and jaw-dropping.”

The group has donated books to libraries, schools, community organizations, homeless shelters, children’s hospitals, and elsewhere.

She and her team of charitable teens with developmental disabilities sort the donations. But Zaslansky and her team understand that receiving the donated books is only part of the equation.

“One of our main goals is to have people know which books to donate,” she says. “We don’t mean to seem picky, but we know that the best books are those with high interest level to make children actually want to read more and be a stepping stone in their education”.

Though their popularity may be diminishing with the uproar in technological advances over the past 15 years, books are far more vital than many people realize. While a healthy supply of books for a school or residency doesn’t seem like a luxury, the cost of new books for elementary schools with low funding makes a severe impact. 

“What people don’t understand,” says Zaslansky, “is that the cost of a new book is quite expensive. Filling up shelves of them for different grades is extremely tough for schools whose budget does not incorporate the necessary funds for education.”

To learn more, visit thebookfairies.org

 

Adventureland’s Helping Hands Foundation Turns Rides Into Charity Drives

The Helping Hands Foundation gives scholarships to Long Island students.

For Jeanine Gentile and the staff she works with at Adventureland Amusement Park, the rides and food are just a part of what makes Long Island’s favorite family destination so special.

The park’s owners founded the nonprofit Helping Hands Foundation in 2013 as a way for the Adventureland team to give back to their patrons, have communities come together, and have LI reach its full potential. 

Jeanine has been working full time at Adventureland for more than 10 years, but the Gentile name was present in the theme park long before her arrival. Her grandfather, Tony, purchased the park in 1987, and spent more than 25 years making improvements to not only Adventureland, but to the entire Island.

“He [Tony] was a loving and caring individual,” says Jeanine of her late grandfather, “It was his love for the people who came in and enjoyed our park that made us want to name our scholarship after him.”

The Tony Gentile Memorial Scholarship started out by providing five students with $1,000 scholarships in 2013, and is now able to award a cumulative $40,000 worth of college tuition.  As impressive as that six-year growth is, the scholarship is only a piece in the charitable puzzle.

Some other upcoming events include the Back to School supply drive, taking place on Friday, August 16. The event corresponds with National Roller Coaster Day, and those who donate new school supplies will be rewarded with a free ride on two of the park’s best rides. 

September 6 will be the biggest event of the calendar year, the V.I.P. Friends & Family Fundraiser, where unlimited food and rides will be available for those helping the foundation to reach their goal of $200,000 for the Tony Gentile Memorial Scholarship.

“I love all the events we do,” says Jeanine. “But when we partner with the Ronald McDonald House for our Toy Delivery Day, and get to physically see the faces of the families we’re helping, it makes it all worth it.”

For more information, visit helpinghandsli.org or call 631-694-6868.

 

Maggie’s Mission: A Promise Kept

Maggie Schmidt

Behind every child diagnosed with pediatric cancer, there is a family fighting an arduous battle. In the case of Maggie Schmidt of Greenlawn, that battle became an enduring mission.

In October of 2016, the then-16-year-old girl met her life-altering diagnosis of malignant rhabdoid tumors (MRT), a rare and aggressive cancer that occurs mostly in infants and toddlers. When she consistently complained of increasing pain, her family knew something was very wrong.

“Maggie had a very high tolerance for pain,” says Maggie’s mother, Donna DeSousa-Schmidt. “It was all very hard — the speed at which the illness struck and the complete lack of availability of life-saving treatments.”

As the cancer resisted treatment and overtook her once healthy body, it did not diminish her spirit. One of Maggie’s final wishes to her family was having her spirit live on through helping others.

And so began Maggie’s Mission. The nonprofit foundation’s goal is to fund life-saving research and aid families that have been affected, while also raising awareness.

“Research for cures for pediatric cancers is completely underfunded,” DeSousa-Schmidt says, specifically indicating that less than 4 percent of federal funds go toward finding cures for childhood cancers and even less for the type of sarcoma Maggie had.  

From events such as Maggie‘s Challenge, held in schools during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September, to a one-mile New Year’s Day race, a high school concert, and an Angelversary Gala, people have come together to not only celebrate Maggie’s life, but to honor and help those in similar situations.

Since Maggie’s battle with MRT ended on June 1, 2017, her foundation has raised nearly $700,000. Some of that funding has gone directly into MRT research at Memorial Sloan Kettering, while more than $50,000 has been donated to helping families financially. 

​“Typically one parent must stop working to care for the sick child, so not only is there a huge emotional toll but also a tremendous financial strain,” says DeSousa-Schmidt. “We’ve all come together to fulfill Maggie’s wish.”

To learn more about the mission, visit maggiesmission.org