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Theissen foundation may have to close Wantagh center

The small storefront in a strip mall in Wantagh is any child's dream. Inside, a dozen Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game consoles - complete with flat-screen TVs - line the wall, while nearby there's a sweets station stocked with candy, arts-and-crafts supplies and a "wish room" filled with new toys.

On most weekends during the year, dozens of critically ill or otherwise needy children can be found enjoying a free birthday or "end-of-chemo" party at the center, run by the nonprofit John Theissen Children's Foundation.

But the fun could end as early as next month after a shortfall in donations left the center unable to support the number of parties it holds, executive director John Theissen said.

Theissen said he hopes a fundraiser Thursday at Mulcahy's in Wantagh will produce the $50,000 the center needs to stay open. But so far, he said, the businesses and foundations that normally make large donations have not come through. Even donations for the group's annual holiday toy drive are down by about half, Theissen said.

"There are days I'll sit down and cry, thinking about it being closed," said Theissen, who had his own childhood bout with a brain tumor and founded the group in 1992.

The fun center, in existence for six years, and the parties account for about 40 percent of the foundation's budget, Theissen said. In addition to the center, the foundation runs annual holiday toy drives and provides new back-to-school outfits and school supplies for needy children. It also contributes to medical expenses for critically ill kids.

Most weekends, the fun center hosts three or four parties for children in need who are referred to the group by social workers or hospitals. The free parties, for as many as 24 children at a time, include ice cream, popcorn, cake and all the activities the kids can cram into two hours.

Denise Martell of Bellerose said Theissen's organization provided a birthday party last year for her daughter Jessica, 5, who is receiving chemotherapy for cancer.

"It's meant a lot just to see the look of happiness on her face that I just sometimes can't do for her," Martell said.

And Commack mom Sandi Frank said the foundation has been a "life raft" for her family, including Jake, 8, and Max, 5. Max is in remission after battling a stage 4 neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system. Frank's husband left the family in 2007, she said, and Max's illness has left her unable to work steadily.

Theissen's group provided parties for Jake and Max, and visited Max with presents in the hospital - something Frank said she wouldn't have been able to afford to do.

"It would be a travesty if that place closed," she said. "I know how instrumental it was in my life."

Theissen said he knew he had to reduce the number of children his cash-strapped group helped this year, but he couldn't bring himself to turn away anyone. "I say it to myself: I did it to myself," he said. "I gave out and I gave out."

He said the group's other activities will likely continue if the center closes, but the closure would be a big blow to the organization.

"I'd probably work out of my house," Theissen said. "We'd have toys put in a warehouse. It would completely change what my vision was 19 years ago."


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