O’Hagan created a culture of empathy


The NYU Langone Cancer Center for Kids toy room is stocked for the rest of the year with the help of Brianna O’Hagan and athletes at the East Rockaway School District.

The toy room is located in the heart of the cancer treatment facility. Throughout the year, the room is used as an incentive and encouragement for the kids to power through their treatment. Whether it’s their birthday, a holiday, or any other occasion, the young patients have the opportunity to sift through a box of toys, after exhausting and intensive treatment.

O’Hagan is the driving force behind the toy drive she started over a decade ago by collaborating with local sports teams to collect items to be donated to NYU Langone. O’Hagan, who lives in East Rockaway, started organizing toy drives with sports teams when she was a softball coach at East Rockaway High, after she graduated in 2010.

“My whole family grew up in East Rockaway,” O’Hagan said. “Including my parents, who went to East Rockaway High School, along with myself and my three younger siblings and we’ve always been very involved with the high school athletics.”

O’Hagan said that her dad coached basketball at East Rockaway Jr./Sr. High School and she coached softball there. This is where she got the idea to work with the sports teams to raise money for local charities. She did this through lemonade stands, which eventually led to toy drives.

The goal of O’Hagan’s first toy drive was for her to show her siblings that they were very lucky with what they have. She wanted to show them that there are others who are less fortunate that they can help.

“During the first year that we did the toy drive, we walked to the regular pediatric unit across the street from us around the holiday time and hand toys to kids that were in there,” O’Hagan said. “My three younger siblings were able to really see what this toy drive was all about.”

Now, 11 years later, O’Hagan contacts two teams playing against each other in basketball and volleyball, and the teams come together before the game to donate toys in a donation box. O’Hagan said that this helps not only to give back to the cancer patients, but it also creates camaraderie and sportsmanship between the teams.

At the end of 2023, O’Hagan worked with the East Rockaway Jr./Sr. High School for her 11th annual Holiday Toy Drive. The girls’ varsity and junior varsity volleyball, boys’ and girls’ varsity basketball, the girls’ varsity basketball squad from Rockville Centre’s South Side High, and varsity cheerleading all worked together to collect toys for cancer patients. O’Hagan also worked with 15 businesses in Nassau County, which placed toy drop-off boxes in their stores.

“Those toys that I donate usually last the patients there a full year,” O’Hagan said.

O’Hagan donates the toys directly to the center. In December, the East Rockaway athletics collected and donated over 100 toys.

“The school started doing this event prior to me being here, where they would collect toys, typically during the winter season right near Christmas time,” Gary Gregory — director of physical education, health, and athletics at East Rockaway School District — said. “We kind of stopped when Covid hit. So once we were able to start playing again, I started this back up and we’ve had great success.”

Gregory said that he wanted to bring the spirit of “giving back” to the community. He said that this drive would be a great way to do that.

“This was something that was a no-brainer for us to bring some joy to children at a time like this,” Gregory said. 

Gregory said the toy drive reinforces the idea of empathy in the students. He said that to be able to put a smile on someone else’s face, who is going through a tough time, shows the type of person that you are.

“I’m very proud of everybody who was involved in this toy drive,” Gregory said. “I think it’s a great cause and I’m just happy that everybody was 100 percent involved and wanted to be part of this.”

O’Hagan said she is very appreciative of the East Rockaway athletics for participating in the toy drive, especially the parents who go out and buy a lot of these gifts.

“Even if people don’t have the means to necessarily buy something nice, even the smallest bit can go such a long way,” O’Hagan said. “And people need to realize that because something so tiny can make such a big difference to people in need, and there are so many more people in need that people don’t even realize.”

O’Hagan said that although she lived in East Rockaway all her life, she never realized some of her neighbors were in need of basic human necessities until she visited homes of those who are less fortunate. This is why she believes it’s important to try to donate anything that can be of help, whether it is a $1 item or a $100 item.

O’Hagan mentioned that it’s never too early to start thinking about toys to collect for her next toy drive in December. She recommends donating toys that the kids at the center can play while they are there. Some of those items include board games and Lego’s, along with gift cards, which she noted are a good gift for the teens.

“Everything has to be packaged properly, otherwise we can’t give it to them because we don’t know what kind of germs can be transferred to the patients,” O’Hagan said.

Although this event is primarily geared toward the holiday season, O’Hagan said she is in the process of starting her own foundation so that she can help those in need year-round. The foundation, which will launch in the next few months, will be called the Love, Ava Project.