Colleen Kisel took a lesson learned while her 7-year-old son, Martin, battled leukemia and turned it into a special project that helps 1,000 kids each month remember that they are still kids.
“I started to bribe my son with toys because the procedures were so brutal,” Kisel says describing what inspired her to create the Pediatric Oncology Treasure Chest Foundation in 1996. Martin recently celebrated his 19th anniversary of remission from the disease.
Kisel said the cancer treatments at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn were painful and did not address the fact that the young patients were just kids.
“They didn’t even have suckers for the kids,” she said. “Nothing. The kids didn't know what cancer was. All they knew was that when they came to the hospital they were going to be in pain.”
At first, Kisel concerned herself with the other kids at Christ that she saw while waiting for Martin to get his treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Today, 16 years later, Kisel’s efforts send toys and gift cards to cancer patients from newborn to 18 years old at 42 hospitals in 13 states.
“Any child being treated in Illinois, Indiana or Wisconsin would be rewarded through our program,” she said.
“There are 35,000 children in the United States being treated for cancer,” she said. “We help 1,000. My goal is to see the day when we serve all of them.”
Kisel started her efforts from her home and worked two jobs to help pay for the costs.
“I did that for seven or eight years,” she said.
For the next eight years, she stored her gifts and worked out of storage units.
“We suffered a lot,” she said. “Storage units don’t have air conditioning.”
Last year, she started looking for a permanent home.
“Even before I stumbled across this new space, one of our donors came forward and said he’d lend me the money we needed to open a permanent site,” she said.
On May 1, the Treasure Chest moved into its 3,000-square-foot home at 15430 S. 70th Court in Orland Park.
“We distribute toys from here,” she said. “Every month, we send out 90 30-pound boxes of toys.”
The toys come mainly from drives held by churches and schools, and 80 percent of the donations come in between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Kisel said three people help her run the warehouse and volunteers help prepare the toys.
“We have eight or nine regular volunteers, all seniors,” she said. “They prepare the toys for shipment. Wrap them if necessary and create gift bags for the kids.”
“We also purchase gift cards for the teenagers we serve,” she said. “We don’t get many donations of gift cards, so we have to buy those.”
Kisel said her main job is to keep the money coming in so the Treasure Chest stays full.
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