“It’s not about me.”
So saying, John Thrissen kicked off the 28th Annual John Theissen Children’s Foundation Toy and Fund Drive on Monday, Nov. 11 that will run through Dec. 23. Formerly named Toys for Sick Children, the Wantagh-based John Theissen Children’s Foundation (JTCF) has been running the holiday toy and fund drive since 1992 to help sick and underprivileged children and their families.
The inception of the holiday toy drive came from the foundation’s namesake, and his unique insight. In 1988, John Theissen was a 17-year-old from North Wantagh just starting his senior year at MacArthur High School. He was readying himself for college and dealing with all the headaches that came with preparing for that next step. Except, the headaches seemed a bit much. They were persistent, nagging and ever-present.
“I thought they were allergies, or something,” Theissen said. “So I went to get a CAT scan on Sept. 28, 1988.”
Thiessen’s life would change forever just a few hours later. After returning home, he met up with a few friends at a local pizza parlor before returning home to see his mother and aunt crying in his kitchen. His results had come back. He had a large tumor growing on his pituitary gland at the base of his brain and, at 17, was forced to ask the ominous question of “how long do I have to live?”
In December, Theissen was admitted into Schnieder (now Cohen) Children’s Medical Center in North New Hyde Park. He was scheduled to have a ten-hour brain operation the following day. As he lay in the hospital bed trying to clear his mind of all of the possibilities of what could happen, a seven-year-old girl with a severe illness shuffled to his bedside. Her name was Tasha.
Tasha stayed with Theissen’s family while he was recovering from the surgery, and she made a lasting impact on him.
“She gave me a gift,” Theissen said. He recalls being so appreciative of her and it uplifted him, as much as anything could.
After a successful surgery, Theissen could not forget Tasha. In fact, he couldn’t forget any of the children that he had met while at Schneider’s.
“After I was released from the hospital, I had a lot more operations and underwent radiation,” Theissen said. “But I couldn’t just go back to a normal life with a career and forget about what I had seen. All of these sick kids, it didn’t seem fair. I had to help them.”
Just four years after his initial diagnosis, Theissen had started Toys for Sick Kids, a nonprofit focused on collecting toys and funds for sick children.
“It started with a single toy,” Theissen said. Since the nonprofit’s humble beginnings, many things have changed: the name, the amount of donations and the purchase of a location on Wantagh Avenue. But one thing hasn’t changed: his focus.
“When I started in ’92, I didn’t see any cures,” Theissen said. “That’s why I strayed toward donating directly to families and not research. Treatments are getting better, but I know that if there is a kid in need with a family who could use some help, that’s what we want to do.”
And donating directly to families is exactly what the JTCF has been doing for nearly three decades. In 1992, the foundation started the “simple holiday drive,” as Theissen called it, with about 800 toys collected. In 2017, Theissen collected 77,000 and, just a year later, collected 81,000.
“But its not just about toys,” Theissen said. “It’s about helping these families in any way possible.” In addition to the toy drive, the JTCF also employs a “Sponsor a Kid” donation option where individuals or groups can make direct donations to a specific child or family.
Over the years, Theissen has become attached to many of the children and their families’ stories. Due to the nature of his business dealing with children who are gravely ill, he admits that the loss of the kids he has built relationships with hurts.
“A lot of kids that I have become very close to have passed away,” Theissen said. “It’s tough, these kids are resilient, but it’s not fair.”
But for every sad story, Theissen acknowledges and appreciates the good ones.
“What I love, though, is seeing kids coming in at four or five-years-old to help their parents donate something,” Theissen said. “Then, years later I’ll see them with their families doing the same thing.”
Donations can be dropped off at or made payable to 1881 Wantagh Avenue, Wantagh, NY 11793 or 555 Sunrise Highway, West Babylon, NY 11704.
In the midst of the toy drive season, Theissen will also host a ‘Night of Champions’ to be attended by former New York Giants Mark Bavaro and Leonard Marshall, former New York Yankee Jeff Nelson and former heavyweight boxer Gerry Cooney.
All of this keeps Theissen very busy during the holiday season. You can notice his storefront location on Wantagh Avenue by a sign featuring a cartoon of a little girl holding a teddy bear. That little girl’s name is Tasha. And that teddy bear is the embodiment of a gift that she gave to Theissen that is much more than the stuffing and fabric used to make it. Tasha gave Theissen a purpose and a reason. He is looking to repay that favor in providing hope and a smile to today’s generation of sick children.