Kristine Bulian knew what her family had to do.
About two and a half years ago, her daughter Hannah was admitted to Advocate Hope Children's Hospital for intense chemotherapy to treat leukemia. It was her 12th birthday.
When the doctors found out it was Hannah's birthday, she immediately got to pick a present from the "treasure chest," a selection of toys donated to hospitals across the country from the Pediatric Oncology Treasure Chest Foundation. During 16 hospital stays that followed after her birthday, the staff would bring her toys to choose from on days when she needed rest, especially after a difficult procedure.
"It was significant. She always smiled," Kristine Bulian said. "The hospital staff would always look for the perfect craft or a coloring book. It made her feel like she could turn a negative into a positive."
Hannah passed away in May after complications from a bone marrow transplant. Last week, Kristine, her husband Michael and daughter Holly stopped by the foundation's warehouse space in Orland Park to drop off a donation of toys.
"It made sense to help keep this going after what it meant to Hannah," Kristine Bulian said.
December was a busy month for the Pediatric Oncology Treasure Chest Foundation. Donations increased by 20 percent with the help of more than 80 toy drives in Oak Forest, Orland Park, Frankfort, Tinley Park, Bridgeview, Romeoville, Lombard, Chicago Heights, New Lenox and other suburbs. Three days before Christmas, the shelves were filled and toys were stacked to the ceiling.
"I don't know what we would do without this season," said founder and Oak Forest resident Colleen Kisel.
The first donation made to the foundation was a Troll-topped pencil. Now they come in as board games, action figures, dolls, crafts, teddy bears—even scooters.
The gifts have changed, but the foundation's mission is as strong and clear as ever. The foundation stocks the closets and toy trunks of 39 cancer treatment centers nationwide, putting toys in the hands of about 7,600 children undergoing cancer treatments each month.
"Little ones, they don't know what cancer is. They just know that it hurts," Kisel said.
Ninety percent of the foundation's donations come in during December. The foundation did not solicit any new business this year, instead turning to former donors.
"People have knocked on our door —people we've never asked before—wanting to help," Kisel said. "I think it's a testament that we're turning a corner with the economy."
Kisel started the foundation in 1997, after her son was put into remission from a case of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. He was diagnosed at 7 years old, and within two years he underwent 18 spinal taps and nine bone marrow aspirations.
"I watched him go through all of that and after a month or two, he got the picture that that place hurts, and he was scared to go," she said.
She filled a trunk with toys and treats. After each treatment, he would receive one and "it just changed everything."
The toys had such an impact during his time at Christ Hospital that she started a collection—small at first but now bursting at the seams.
Any time a child undergoes any treatment, he or she visits either the treasure chest, or a cabinet/closet filled by the foundation.
"The closet, that's where all the good stuff is," Kisel said.
Her son Martin, now 25, serves as an ambassador for the foundation as he travels to schools and stirs up support for drives like Toys for Tots. The foundation's dry period rolls around each summer, when contributions drop. Kisel said they're always in need of funding, as each shipment to one of the 39 cancer centers costs approximately $600.
One-hundred percent of every toy donated ends up in the hands of a child or teen fighting cancer.
"Never in a million years did I think it would be nationwide," she said. "But because of the generosity of the community, we had no choice."