Toy drive cheers up kids hospitalized for holidays

December 19, 2011 (CHICAGO)

It is a holiday toy drive that began small -- with just 150 toys donated -- and now has grown to over 30,000 toys being given away.

Monday's give-a-way not only pays tribute to an unforgettable boy, but also makes sure we all understand how hard it is to be a kid -- ill -- during the holidays.

For Sue Staehely and her elves, Monday is a part of a special promise kept.

"From the minute I walk in the front door I just feel that he's here," said Staehely.

For an 11th year, friends, neighbors and Mark Staehely's mother are spreading holiday cheer at the same hospital, with the same people Mark cared so much about.

"It's important to me to carry on the Christmas spirit Mark gave unto all of us," said elf Roger Damyen.

Mark Staehely spent six years in and out of Children's Memorial Hospital battling cancer.

"We know his dream was to do this and continue to do this every year," said Allison Parish, Mark's nurse.

Mark was only 12 when he was first diagnosed with the disease that attacked his muscles and spinal cord, forcing him to endure endless procedures, stem cell replacement and chemotherapy.

And, because Mark realized no kid wants to be sick and alone at the hospital at Christmas, he started a toy drive, handing out goodies to his fellow patients.

When Mark died in 2006, he made his mother pledge to keep it going. Thousands of gifts later, the annual Toy Fest has also become a homecoming for Sue and her crew, who are greeted with open arms and smiles by the staff.

Most of the children at Children's Memorial Hospital suffer from cancer and other illnesses. But it is their faces where the spirit of CHRISTMAS lives on.

"To have the kids get this kind of attention is wonderful," said Michael Scharpman, the father of a patient.

Sue Staehely started a foundation in honor of her son to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer research.

Monday's visit was bittersweet. Children's is moving to their its building in June, so Monday was the last time for Mark's toy drive in the North Side facility.

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