Last Saturday, a line of cars, classic and contemporary, pulled up in the municipal lot behind the headquarters of the John Theissen Children’s Foundation in Wantagh. Inside were donated toys. Students from the Wantagh High School Key Club checked each car for every last toy and placed them in bags. After collecting hundreds of toys in less than three hours, they thanked the donors and hauled the bags into the building.
Each year, Seaford resident John Theissen, 49, resident philanthropist, and his nonprofit host a handful of fundraising events to help sick and underprivileged children. Many contributions are typically made at large galas and fundraisers, but this year many were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Theissen was facing the possibility of losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of donations.
One of the foundation’s best-known events, dating back to its founding in 1992, has been the Holiday Toy and Fund Drive, which usually runs from early November until Dec. 23. Its inspiration was Theissen’s experience as a teenager in Schneider (now Cohen) Children’s Hospital in North New Hyde Park. The day before he underwent 10 hours of surgery to address a large tumor growing on his pituitary gland, a critically ill 7-year-old girl named Tasha walked into his room and gave him a gift. Theissen was so appreciative of her generosity that he vowed to dedicate his life to helping other children in the same position as him and Tasha.
Now, 32 years later and in the midst of a global pandemic, Theissen needed a helping hand himself in order to help those children, and he got one when Wantagh High School Key Club adviser Heidi Felix stepped up.
“When I was looking for a job years ago as a single mother, John was there to help me, and I worked alongside him,” Felix recalled on Saturday. “I saw firsthand how selfless John is and how important the work that he does is.”
Felix said that she understood how important this time of year is to Theissen, and explained that the idea for the drive-through fundraiser came from her friend Arthur Lih, who’s also her boss at LifeVac, a Suffolk County company that makes anti-choking devices for young children.
“I wanted to do something visual,” Lih said on Saturday as he watched the students gather the toys. “A lot of people make wonderful donations, and that’s great. But [John] has had a tough year. I wanted him to see all of these people showing appreciation, and that we are grateful for his years of hard work.”
Theissen was unable to attend the event due to the untimely death of a close friend.
Lih, a car aficionado, brought three of his own automobiles to the donation, and encouraged friends to bring their classic cars as well. Key Club members ran back and forth among the cars, collecting the individual toys.
“I think a lot of people have unfortunately lost their jobs due to the pandemic, so it’s hard for a lot of families to get Christmas toys for their kids,” said junior Garret Gunn, a Key Club trustee. “When I was younger, I even got toys from the John Theissen Foundation. It actually impacts me, because I know how meaningful it can be to get gifts from others when people can’t get them for themselves and their family.”
“Wantagh is our home,” said senior Julia Froese, a co-president of the club. “To have people come and donate toys, and for us to help out with that, it feels really great to be able to make that direct impact in our community, the place that we love.”
Felix lauded club members’ selflessness and desire to think beyond themselves, especially at their ages. To see them gathered in a parking lot collecting toys for others at 9 on a Saturday morning, when they could be doing anything else, she said, was special, and indicative of their character.
As they darted between vehicles, sometimes opening trunks to collect toys, some reflected on how the good feeling of giving might be passed on to future generations of Key Club members. “Human kindness can never be outdated,” said senior Lauren Daniels, a club trustee. “People are constantly going to need our help. It gives you a great feeling in you heart to know that you’re helping others.”
“Everyone in our club is really involved,” said senior Michael Minars, a co-president. “We have freshman all the way to seniors here and helping. We always grew up with gifts. Even in this time, we’re fortunate enough to have them. It feels good to give to people who don’t. That is really what our club is all about.”