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Toy Drive

Coram resident raises donations in Miller Place to help sick children

Santa, played by Michael Carnes, hugs a child he delivered gifts to. Photo by KT Leung

Coram resident Ashley Leung put the drive in toy drive for the second year in a row.

Last year, Leung, 24, wanted to brighten up the holidays for kids who have cancer and other life-threatening illnesses in the community, so she collaborated with some local good Samaritans to create the Kids Need More Toy Drive to go above and beyond to make a difference in children’s lives.

Once all donated gifts were collected at the drop-off station at Corrective Chiropractic in Miller Place, they were loaded up in a fully decorated “holiday cheer bus” and brought directly to the door steps of kids and families in need by Santa — played by Leung’s uncle and local chiropractor Michael Carnes — and a group of volunteer “elves.”

A family shows off the new gifts Santa, played by Michael Carnes, delivered. Photo by KT Leung

Leung said it was important to her that the delivery was personal.

“We wanted to donate to the children in the area, but also be the ones to deliver those gifts because there’s a lot of different toy drives in New York and nationwide, but no one really knows where the toys go,” she said. “We wanted to document everything … so for every toy donated, we gave a picture to the donors showing them ‘this is where your donation went.’”

For the second annual Kids Need More toy drive, Leung, Santa and his elves headed back on the bus Dec. 18 for an even bigger and better night of giving.

Leung said this year a total of five buses were launched, as opposed to two last year —   two in Suffolk County, two in Nassau and one in New Jersey. The volunteer turnout also increased. The Suffolk buses, for instance, had a total of 40 parents, friends, family and even former cancer patients on board this year, compared to eight to 10 on each bus last year.

Hundreds of gifts were donated by members of the community —  everything from Disney Infinity games for PlayStation 3 to stuffed animals and hats. A blue and black mountain bike was donated anonymously and raffled off to a 15-year-old patient.

Young girls especially loved receiving Cancer Barbie. The hairless doll comes with different wigs they’re able to swap out and serves as an inspiration for those undergoing chemotherapy. The girls see a doll that looks like them and suddenly don’t feel different, Leung said.

Many of the kids went home from the hospital just to see Santa.

Santa spreads some holiday cheer throughout Suffolk County. Photo by KT Leung

“We made a really big difference,” she said. “I think the kids we visited this year truly appreciated us visiting them. We really kept the holiday spirit going; I think the kids we saw were honestly shocked.”

Leung’s charity venture spring boarded while she was attending St. Joseph’s College. A professor told her about Camp Adventure, a week-long sleepaway camp on Shelter Island for kids diagnosed with cancer, which remains Long Island’s only camp of its kind. She was excited to get involved and wanted to immediately.

The year she joined the summer program — which now serves the East Coast and tri-state area — as a camp counselor, the organization found itself without funding.

The American Cancer Society had been providing funds for the camp since 1990, but suddenly had to stop in 2013, so a dedicated group of Camp Adventure volunteers began Kids Need More to parent the camp and ensure its longevity.

Kids Need More Camp Adventure is completely free for all kids and siblings who want to attend and involves everything from a day camp, to peer mentoring programs and visits to children’s hospitals.

It even partners with a volunteer pilot organization called Patient AirLift Services that flies patients living in rural areas who need specialized treatment to centers and hospital appointments. For the last two years, PALS has flown kids who live outside of Long Island — like those in Ohio, New Jersey and even in Albany — to the camp for free.

When Leung was working in the Corrective Chiropractic office last year, she began talking to her uncle about wanting to do something to give back to the community, and a partnership with Kids Need More to donate to children in the area seemed like a no-brainer.

According to Melissa Firnes, the founder of Kids Need More, the event has “snowballed” and served 200 kids while making lots of stops.

“These kids love it,” Firnes said. “We show up to their house for caroling and things like that. It’s simple, but very nice.”

She said what matters most is that the organization isn’t asking families to leave their homes.

Local volunteers for the Kids Need More toy drive smile in front of one of the buses as it drops off gifts to the homes of local children. Photo by KT Leung

“We’re actually coming to them, and I think that matters a lot to them,” she said. “It’s hard for [the families] to get around when there’s somebody sick in the family. Kids come out to the bus and choose a gift from the volunteer elves.”

She said Leung is willing to do anything Kids Need More needs to be successful, which makes her stand out.

“[Leung] is really great at being the cheermeister for the kids and being all enthusiastic, but is also willing to do all the legwork and logistics that’s needed in putting together the toy drive,” Firnes said. “She’s been such a big part of the organization and has now brought her whole family into it, which is really special too.”

Carnes, who brings Santa to life for the kids, said it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to touch people’s hearts and directly impact their lives.

“Children really thought I was Santa when I came up and they would give me a hug and say ‘thank you Santa,’” Carnes said. “Some of these children don’t have much and some families barely have anything, so to bring joy to people is just amazing … it’s the spirit of the holidays.”

He said he believes we can all use more happiness in the world.

Jaime Pacheco, PALS outreach coordinator and cheer bus volunteer, said the toy drive prides itself on the fact that it’s not about the gift you’re getting, but the time spent with people and the emotional support they provide.

Leung said the toy drive continues to be the best day of her life.

“Just getting off that bus — and some of these kids don’t even know we’re coming — they see Santa at their front door, and they’re just completely shocked,” she said. ”I think that’s the best thing we can give them.”

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Bikers rev up holiday cheer for children at Wading River campus

Santa Claus swapped his signature red hat for a black helmet and led hundreds of bikers from Babylon Town Hall to Wading River Dec. 4 to kickstart the holiday season for children and young adults in need.

For the past 30 years, the staff members and young residents at Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York have welcomed the Long Island Harley Owners Group to their Wading River campus for what has become Long Island’s oldest toy run.

The group bands together with other motorcycle clubs across Long Island to deliver gifts to the children of the not-for-profit charity organization. Little Flower, founded in 1929, provides programs and services to children, families and adults with behavioral and developmental disabilities living in the area, and offers residential services and compassionate alternatives to state-run institutions.

“I’m very thankful,” said Russell, 15, of Syosset. “They come out and they use their time, and play with us and do different things with us on their own time when they could be sitting at home.”

There are approximately 100 students between the ages 10 and 21 living on the Little Flower campus in cottage-style homes. Most of them are there primarily for educational purposes. The students are special education children with a variety of challenges who are referred to the organization by local school districts.

They struggle with mental, developmental and behavioral problems, but because the student body at Little Flower is relatively small, there’s more of a hands-on approach to catering to their individual needs.

“I’m very thankful. They come out and they use their time, and play with us and do different things with us on their own time…”

—Russell

Corinne Hammons, CEO of Little Flower, said the organization strives to help and embrace the kids as they are. She said often students come from tough circumstances and have challenges that can’t be helped at home or in local schools. She said she’s very proud to partner with the Harley group and have its longstanding support.

“We don’t take this partnership for granted at all; every year they could choose any charity and they keep choosing us, and we’re very grateful,” Hammons said. “The idea of them coming to us wanting to give is very meaningful for the kids, who sure look forward to it each year.”

While the Harley Owners Group is involved with several charities throughout the year — including veteran fundraisers — members of the group consider this particular event the one they look forward to most all year. It’s also the only event that non-Harley-Davidson owners can join.

Bob Brinka, director of the Long Island Harley Owners Group, said what keeps the group coming back year after year are the smiles on the children’s faces.

“Doing this for kids that don’t have a lot is really important to us … this is the one that’s most dear to our hearts,” Brinka said. “We look forward to making people’s lives a lot nicer and giving the kids something they don’t have. Because we have, we can give.”

He said this year the group had 276 registered motorcycles for the ride plus another 30 that joined them along their route.

Those at Little Flower watched in glee as bikers arrived in traditional fashion to the campus. The parade of Christmas-decorated bikes roared down a long driveway, each one equipped with a pile of gifts all donated by members. They brought everything from giant stuffed teddy bears to skateboards and remote control cars.

Maureen Fox, vice president of external relations for Little Flower, said for the kids, the event is all about the “spectacle” of seeing the bikers arrive.

“Doing this for kids that don’t have a lot is really important to us … this is the one that’s most dear to our hearts”

—Bob Brinka

The event went inside to the gym on campus, where children were excited to hop on stage and meet with Santa, played by Harley Owners Group member Nick Klopsis, and choose from the big pile of gifts. Chili and drinks were available, as well as holiday-themed entertainment. Some members joined children on stage to perform impromptu choir bell renditions of Christmas songs.

Thom Kister, a 12-year Harley Owners Group member, pointed out a beaming girl carrying a teddy bear off the stage and said he bought the gift three months prior to the event.

“It’s all about the kids and seeing their faces on the stage,” Kister said. “And when we do the precession, coming up, just having everybody out there waving really fills you up and makes you feel good. This is so different from everything else we do because it’s open to all the biking community. We love it and we love doing it.”

Chris Evel, a member of 30 years, echoed Kister’s sentiment.

“Nobody helps the community like the bikers,” he said. “Whatever [the kids] need, that’s what we’re here for. It could be anywhere on Long Island — we’ll be there to help.”

According to Fox, before the bikers hop back on their motorcycles and hit the road, some of them deliver gifts directly to the developmentally disabled residents on campus who are unable to get to the gym.

Alex, 16, of Bellmore, said not just the event, but the entire month of December is special for him and the rest of the children at Little Flower.

“It’s a nice thing that [the Harley Owners Group] does because it’s all volunteer … they didn’t have to come here,” he said. “This month is probably the best month for everybody here because we had the Christmas tree lighting a few days ago, and then next week we have a party, so all the kids are happy that we’re doing this.”

The pile of donations from this year’s Kevin’s Holiday Angels Toy Drive. Photo by Kevin Redding

The spirit of giving was in full effect inside Phil’s Restaurant in Wading River Nov. 29, as toys of all shapes and sizes piled up, ready to be delivered to children in need.

The large crowd of family, friends and community members gathered at the Cheers-esque sports bar to donate toys to the Kevin Williams Foundation’s 11th annual “Kevin’s Holiday Angels” Toy Drive.

Mike and Patti Williams started the foundation in 2002 as a reaction to the passing of their 24-year-old son Kevin, who worked as a bonds salesman for Sandler O’Neill in Manhattan and was on the 104th floor of Tower Two when tragedy struck on Sept. 11, 2001. He was supposed to be married 10 weeks later. Patti Williams said that Kevin was “such a generous person” and always made others happy.

Mike Williams, his daughter Kelly and wife Patti host a toy drive in memory of son and brother Kevin. Photo by Kevin Redding
Mike Williams, his daughter Kelly and wife Patti host a toy drive in memory of son and brother Kevin. Photo by Kevin Redding

“He was the kind of person that, when you walked into the room, he would give you this smile that made you feel like the most important person,” she said.

Kevin’s childhood friend Brian Baumeister thinks that he would’ve loved how many lives this foundation has touched.

“He was just super big-hearted … such a genuine guy,” Baumeister said. “He always had your back. And he was such an unbelievable athlete.”

Because of their son’s love for sports, the Williams devoted their organization to sending children, who couldn’t afford it otherwise, to sports camps or register them to play on teams in the area as a way to “do something with his love.” Five years in, they received a call from Long Island Youth Mentoring, one of the many organizations they worked alongside, which asked them to help a local family that had recently been evicted from their home. The Williams took care of them and made sure the family had a holiday that year. It wasn’t long before they started helping other local families in similar situations.

This led the Williams’ to start the toy drive, which targets the wishes and needs of children in the area — some of which range from video game consoles to clothes to even simpler needs. Patti Williams said one family had children asking for towels to sleep on because they didn’t have beds. This year, 28 families were on the list and the pile of donations at the restaurant grew taller by the minute.

“You can’t just stay in that dark place. You have to decide — and it’s not easy — what to do to make life better for others. Then that becomes your focus and really helps you through the grieving process.”

—Patti Williams

“Our community has been there for us since the beginning … we are just so blessed,” Patti Williams said. “When you’ve had such a tragic loss in your life, you have to make a decision. You can’t just stay in that dark place. You have to decide — and it’s not easy — what to do to make life better for others. Then that becomes your focus and really helps you through the grieving process.”

Mike Williams said he couldn’t believe how many people showed up to the toy drive this year, especially on a dreary, wet evening. When you surround yourself with loving people, he said, that’s what happens.

“We’re reaching out and trying to help people,” he said. “We wake up in the morning and say ‘All right, how can we turn this into something good?’”

On Christmas Eve, he recalls showing up to the residence of a family in dire straits. In one room, there was a metal bunk bed for the kids, similar to what would be seen in a military confine. The floor was covered in clothes and was nearly impossible to walk on. They asked the mother what she was planning on doing for Christmas dinner, and when she said nothing, the Williams’ assured her the family would have a proper dinner.

When they returned the next day, Mike Williams said he was in shock.

“The beds were made like West Point cadets made them,” he said. “There wasn’t anything on the floors. The woman looked 30 years younger, and I remembering thinking ‘look at the transition we made with just one little family by caring. They were thrown away, and thought nobody cared.’”

Wayne and Patty Fellrath volunteer their time to help deliver the toys. Photo by Kevin Redding
Wayne and Patty Fellrath volunteer their time to help deliver the toys. Photo by Kevin Redding

It’s Patti Williams’ hope that the families they’ve helped get back on track, get out of their own dark places and “pay it forward” to others in need.

She said while she and her husband are the orchestrators of the toy drive, there’s a huge community effort that goes into the donations, and wrapping and delivering them.

The Wading River Fire Department donates the community room to serve as gift-wrapping space for the 60 to 70 volunteer wrappers, and Wayne Fellrath, a retired New York City firefighter, grows out his white beard and delivers toys dressed as Santa, with his wife Patty dressing as an elf.

The Fellraths said it’s heartwarming they can bring joy to children who aren’t well enough to leave their homes and see Santa.

“Patti [Williams] called me up and asked ‘Did you get your flu shot this year?’” Wayne Fellrath recalled. “I said ‘Yeah, what’s wrong?’ She said the doctor told her in order to have a visit from Santa, everybody had to have a flu shot. And I was never happier in my life to have gotten a flu shot.”

Among the large pile of donated goods children in need can look forward to is a 150-piece art set, basketballs, bedding, an XBox One and a Power Rangers toy set. On the morning of Dec. 17, the pile will be brought to the firehouse to be wrapped and shipped out.

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Donations from the 10th Annual Kevin’s Ange’s Toy Drive will be wrapped on Dec. 19 before volunteers deliver them to the families in need. Photo by Giselle Barkley

After Sept. 11, 2001, the Williams family wanted to so something special to remember their son Kevin who died on that day, and after 15 years, they’re still honoring him.

Community members packed themselves into Phil’s Restaurant in Wading River to help support and donate toys to the Kevin Williams Foundation’s 10th annual Toy Drive, which was held on Dec. 1, from 7 to 10 p.m. The toy drive is an expansion of the Williams service to the community.

Fifteen years ago the family created Kevin’s Angels, which helped send children to a sports camp or play for a team. However, after schools and organizations like Long Island Youth Mentoring sought the family’s help for other families in need, the Williams started the toy drive to continue their outreach. For the Williams, giving back to the community and offering a helping hand during the holidays is a way to remember their son.

“We knew that we had to share his zest for life,” said Patti Williams, Kevin’s mother. “What better way than creating a foundation; and we could give to children and hopefully change the direction of some of their lives.”

Kevin Williams worked for Sandler O’Neil, a financial company based in Manhattan. The 24-year-old was on the 104th floor of Tower Two when tragedy struck and the building collapsed. Williams was to be married 10 weeks after Sept. 11.

Patti Williams takes donated gifts. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Patti Williams takes donated gifts. Photo by Giselle Barkley

In 1995, Williams graduated from Shoreham-Wading River High School and had a passion for academics as well as sports. In high school he was the captain and the most valuable player of his basketball, baseball and golf teams. Several years ago, Shoreham-Wading River renovated its varsity baseball field and renamed it after Williams. The field offers the family and other community members with a safe space to remember a loved one and reflect on Sept. 11.

This was the fifth time Phil’s Restaurant, owned by Phil Marcario, donated the space for the toy drive. Since Marcario’s wife grew up with Kevin Williams, the two are like family. Together, they made the night more than just a toy drive.

“We really wanted to make it a night where people could mingle and talk instead of just dropping off a toy,” Marcario said. “You could come and kind of spend time together, which is what the holidays are really all about.”

According to Mike Williams, Kevin Williams’ father, the toy drive helps around 30 families annually. They’ve also helped 1,025 underprivileged kids attend sports camps in the past 15 years. Despite their efforts, the family said the community is what really helped get to this point in their lives.

“We have a great faith, but we also surround ourselves with an abundance of love,” Mike Williams said.

While the Toy Drive was created in light of a tragedy, Shoreham resident Steve Malandrino said the Williams are one of few families who have turned a bad situation into something positive. Malandrino was once Mike Williams’ student when he attended Miller Place High School in the 1970s. Thus far, he’s attended nine of the 10 toy drives.

In addition to the abundance of community support, turning a negative situation into something positive also helped the family get through tough times.

“Anyone who’s gone through a tragedy, especially losing a child — you have a decision to make,” Patti Williams said. “You somehow have to get yourself from that point of not wanting to wake up in the morning because it’s another day of pain, to finding an avenue where you can make lives better for others.”