The John Theissen Children’s Foundation Family Fun Center isn’t going anywhere.
Theissen said in May that if he did not raise $50,000 by June 30, he would be unable to renew his lease for the Family Fun Center — a Wantagh Avenue building where he has held hundreds of parties for children with terminal illnesses, in addition to collecting holiday toys and school supplies for local children in need. When Theissen started a fundraiser to keep his doors open, Wantagh, Seaford and Levittown residents responded by donating more than $100,000.
Hundreds of community members visited a GoFundMe page that Theissen established for the center, he said, amassing about $42,000. Additional donations came from fundraisers such as lemonade stands run by Wantagh, Seaford and Levittown children this summer and anonymous supporters sending checks — some for more than $10,000.
“I am so, so grateful,” Theissen said. “I always called this a community foundation, because the community’s support has made it what it is today. I am in such a better position now, but I know I have to work a lot harder so I’m not in this position again.”
When Theissen was a junior at MacArthur High School, he suffered from severe headaches. In September 1988, when he was 17 and starting his senior year, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was operated on that December, and spent most of the holiday season recovering in the oncology unit at Schneider Children’s Hospital. He met children who were sick, and the experience inspired him to launch his foundation four years later.
In 1992, he held his first holiday toy drive to benefit children in local hospitals. He collected and distributed 800 toys, helping children at three medical facilities. Twenty-five years later, Theissen has collected and given away thousands of toys to ailing children, formally established his nonprofit, and expanded the charity’s mission and programs.
By 2006, JTCF needed a home base. Theissen found a building in downtown Wantagh and opened the Family Fun Center that year.
He said he wanted to throw free birthday, pre- and post-treatment parties for sick children — especially those whose families could not afford toys or recreational activities because of medical expenses. After less than two months of fundraising, Theissen transformed the space into a colorful, festive environment.
In addition to holding about 60 parties a year, the Family Fun Center is also the drop-off place for the JCTF back-to-school supply and holiday toy drives. Students from the Wantagh, Seaford, Levittown, Bellmore and Merrick school districts have volunteered at the center, either helping with the toy collections or playing with younger children at the parties. Theissen has also allowed other community groups in Wantagh-Seaford to hold events in the building, including fundraisers for families whose homes were damaged by fire.
Judy Riccardi, of Wantagh, found out about the foundation in 2008 — shortly after her 8-year-old daughter, Victoria died of heart failure.
After her daughter’s sudden death, which was caused by a viral infection, the owners of Wantagh’s Marianne Anderson School of Dance organized a fundraiser for the family. Riccardi said that she and her husband, John, weren’t sure where to donate the $8,000 that community members collected until she saw a flier in the Causeway Deli for a drive benefitting a local girl with brain cancer who Theissen was sponsoring.
“It was almost like it was placed in front of me,” she recalled. “My husband [John] and I knew that this was where the money should go. What John does is quite unique because he serves the immediate community.”
Riccardi said that, thanks to friends, relatives and neighbors, the family collected $11,000 with the intention of awarding a scholarship or establishing a memorial for Victoria this June — when she would have graduated from Wantagh High School. But she and her husband decided to give the money to Theissen when they heard that the JTCF Family Fun Center might close.
“These families have to watch their kids die a little every single day,” Riccardi said. “John makes their lives a little bit happier and easier. No one knows the effort and the struggle and the heartache that goes into what he does.”
Dr. Tonie McDonald, superintendent of the Levittown School District, said that students and faculty members were also honored to contribute to the cause and keep the center open. The district takes in students from north Wantagh and Seaford.
“The [JCTF] mission to support sick and underprivileged children and their families is a worthy cause,” McDonald said. “It serves as an inspiration to us all.”
Theissen said he was overwhelmed by the community’s support. Shortly after signing his new, five-year lease, he got to work, collecting supplies and backpacks for his annual back-to-school drive. “It means the world to me to keep the center in this location,” he said. “This all started in Wantagh and Seaford, and it’s an honor to be able to stay here.
“Anytime there’s a sick kid in this community,” he continued, “I will be the first person to stand up. I want [to] have their backs, just like they had mine.”