An unexpected allergic reaction on Christmas night 2009 resulted in a stop at a Long Island Hospital for then 4-year-old Emily Meyer.
The next morning, staff at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, gave the child a bag stuffed with board games, pajamas and dolls.
"I know it made my stay better at the hospital. Those toys, the excitement of getting more presents — every kid wants that," said Emily 15, now a sophomore at North Babylon High School. "It distracted me from being sick and I’m sure it gave some relief to my parents. They were able to see my smile."
The unforeseen experience prompted Emily to launch "Emily’s Awesome Toy Drive" in 2010 with the help of her grandfather. Since then, her efforts have produced countless smiles on the faces of sick children at Long Island hospitals.
Emily's operation has grown from collecting a few dozen donated gifts and delivering them to Good Samaritan Hospital over the holidays, to a more sophisticated endeavor that now includes a Facebook page, an Instagram account and a link to multiple Long Island hospitals and charitable organizations.
In addition to Good Samaritan, Emily's toy drive is collaborating with Cohen Children’s Medical Center, Stony Brook University Hospital, the John Theissen Foundation, Angela’s House and the Ronald McDonald House, according to the North Babylon Union Free School District. The school system has also set up donation boxes at some schools, she said.
Since age 5, Emily has helped deliver thousands of donated gifts to hospitalized children.
Even during a pandemic, she has a goal of collecting and delivering 2,500 donated gifts this holiday season, a tally that would match 2019’s clip, the most ever. Emily said Tuesday that she’s about 1,000 donations shy of the mark.
Emily said her toy drive takes on more significance because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"This year, everything is different. Families are struggling. Kids are getting even more sick," Emily said. "It’s really important this year."
Emily's mother, Tara DeCola, called her daughter’s visit to Good Samaritan on Christmas night more than a decade ago "scary." DeCola explained how Emily was on antibiotics for strep throat and had an allergic reaction that caused her to collapse, break out in hives, and labored her breathing.
The gifts Emily was presented, through the hospital’s Child Life Program, was a gesture she’ll never forget, DeCola said.
"We really didn’t know what was going to happen or how soon she was going to get better," DeCola said. "When they showed up with a gift bag, I was so touched."
DeCola’s voice cracked with emotion when she spoke about her father, and Emily's grandfather, Michael Foran, who helped launch the toy drive. Foran died in 2015. The toy drive honors him, DeCola said.
"It’s the best way to keep him alive. She has his heart. I’m so grateful for that," she said.
Kate Fenton, director of the Child Life Department at Good Samaritan, said she has known Emily since her overnight stay at the hospital in 2009.
She said Emily has grown into a "delightful" young woman. The Child Life Department provides a range of services including school tutoring, medical orientation and many types of health programs such as music therapy, Fenton said.
As for the donated gifts, they are given to children on holidays, personal milestones such as graduations, or as rewards when patients are enduring difficult treatments, Fenton said.
Children who are dealing with difficult circumstances, such as a death in the family, are given donated stuffed animals so they "have something to hug and hold on to," she added.
Good Samaritan is not allowing in-person toy deliveries because of the pandemic. Fenton, however, was impressed that Emily thought ahead.
She began collecting toys over the summer. Stony Brook University Hospital also has a similar policy. But both hospitals are accepting mailed gifts. With monetary donations, Emily has purchased and sent about 200 gifts to each hospital, DeCola said.
Emily provides a link for an Amazon wish list on her toy drive’s private Facebook page, www.facebook.com/groups/574179189938557, and on the toy drive’s Instagram account.
Her basement in her Babylon home is dubbed "Toy Drive Central." She stores donated toys there and organizes them by gender for delivery. On the toy drive’s private Facebook page, which had 1,200 followers as of Tuesday, Emily writes posts thanking and naming donors.
Emily, a philanthropist since kindergarten, said her toy drive will continue for the foreseeable future.
"I enjoy this," she said. "It’s important for me to bring joy to the kids who need it the most."
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