One child’s simple act of kindness has grown into a lifelong effort that’s helped hundreds of sick children on Long Island.
Ray Mohler, of Lynbrook, started the Little Saint Nick Foundation after he was suddenly hospitalized as a child 16 years ago. It began as a simple toy drive around the holidays but is now a year-round operation. Mohler, who turns 21 on Christmas Eve, and his team of volunteers provide gift bags to young emergency department patients at three Long Island hospitals.
“It’s been exciting and a little scary to see how this has all developed,” Mohler said. “It’s all developed really naturally, though — one thing has led to another.”
Mohler started the nonprofit after he was diagnosed with Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease in 2002. The sudden pain in his hips caused by the childhood condition sent Mohler to the former Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, now called Cohen Children’s Medical Center.
Mohler’s condition — in which blood fails to flow to the hip joint, causing the surrounding bone to die — meant he had to sleep in a brace for two years and was directed by doctors not to run or jump to limit the impact on his joints. It’s a childhood condition and he has since fully recovered.
But Mohler still recalls the eight-hour stint in the hospital when he was little. He remembers feeling scared, disoriented and wishing he had something to distract himself while doctors ran test after test.
“I had nothing to take my mind off of what I was going through,” he said.
Even months later, as the holidays neared, the children at Schneider’s remained on his mind. He told his parents that he wanted the children at the hospital to have all the gifts he received for Christmas and his birthday.
After they packed up a plush Dumbo doll, the games of Yahtzee and Operation and several action figures, Dina Mohler said her son turned to her and said he wanted to donate every year.
“I’ve always called him an old soul,” Dina Mohler said. “He was serious about it from the beginning.”
The next year, Mohler collected donations by going door to door through Lynbrook with his parents. Soon afterward, they started packaging and distributing gift bags to children at the hospital and also occasionally put on small parties for the children.
Soon, the Mohlers had a room in their small home crammed with toys and packing materials. They used the warehouse of the Mohlers’ air conditioning business for overflow and relied on their friends to help them pack the bags.
It became like a full-time job for Mohler and his parents, but his enthusiasm for the project never flagged.
“When I visit the hospitals and I see how even a small gift can completely change their experience — that keeps me going,” Mohler said.
Amanda Filippazzo, a supervisor of patient- and family-centered care at Cohen’s, said she’s seen the impact the Little Saint Nick Foundation has made. They distribute about 300 gift bags per month, according to Filippazzo.
“Honestly, when we give these out families are so grateful,” she said. “The kids’ faces just light up. They’re so excited.”
The nonprofit has slowly grown over the years from its mom-and-pop roots.
Mohler was recently honored as a Hometown Hero by the New York Islanders and featured in a Subaru video campaign. Last year, the Little Saint Nick Foundation opened a small office in East Rockaway, and is now joined by a group of volunteers who were inspired by Mohler’s mission.
Since April 2017, 12-year-old Jake Young and his family have helped pack and deliver hundreds of bags.
Jake, of Long Beach, began working with the foundation after his younger brother, Cooper, then 5, fell and needed staples in his head.
“He was freaked out when he went to the hospital, but when the nurse came in with the gift bag, he changed completely,” Jake said. “After he kept going on about how the teddy bear was so cute and how it was fun to color the pictures.”
Mohler hopes to bring the program to more hospitals in New York and is currently working to launch in a hospital in Tampa, Florida, where he attends the University of Tampa to study entrepreneurship.
Mohler said whenever he feels burned out from the stress of running a nonprofit and going to school full time, he thinks back to his time in the hospital 16 years ago.
“I never wanted to go through that again. It’s not something any kid should have to go through,” Mohler said. “That really drives me.”