Toy drive for Eagle Scout project benefits children battling cancer

Zachary Fortuna knows all too well the struggles a young person faces when battling cancer.

His little cousin, Chris, was diagnosed at age 4 with advanced-stage neuroblastoma, a cancer of the adrenal glands.

Zachary noticed that whenever Chris, now 6, was feeling down, a toy would quickly put a smile on his face. That smile spread to everyone in the hospital room.

Instantly, Zachary knew he had found his Eagle Scout service project. The 13-year-old from Troop 56 of Burr Ridge, Ill., organized a toy drive to benefit children battling cancer.

Zachary and his fellow Scouts and volunteers spent 817 hours on the project and collected $15,000 in toys — enough to fill a 12-foot moving truck.

I reached out to Zachary and his mom, Michele, for details about this great Good Turn.

Hatching the idea

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Ever since he made up his mind to become an Eagle Scout, Zachary struggled with one aspect of earning Scouting’s highest rank: the Eagle Scout service project.

He wanted a project that would make a lasting difference and hold personal significance — two qualities behind truly great Eagle projects.

He was still searching for an idea when Chris was diagnosed with cancer.

“It was then that I knew that my project would, in honor of him, help to try and benefit the lives of children and their families battling cancer,” Zachary said.

That’s when the project, which Zachary called “Lift a Spirit,” was born. Zachary decided he would collect toys for the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital, where Chris receives treatment.

But the real work was just beginning.

Spreading the word

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Zachary sent donation letters to friends and family, small and large companies, and his family’s vet and dentist. The letter included a wish list of items he was hoping to collect.

If the person or company gave money instead, Zachary used it to purchase toys from the wish list.

“Everyone was amazed by what I was doing and were more than happy to help me however they could,” Zachary said. “No one looked upon me as a kid but as a young man.”

He created a project website where he posted all of his fliers, posters, letters and emails. The website made it possible for strangers from afar to contribute.

Zachary hosted 11 toy drives at a variety of locations. At other spots, like the fire station, local library and Walgreens, Zachary got permission to place drop-off boxes. He returned weekly to empty those boxes.

Collecting the donations

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A little bribery worked at the local elementary school, where Zachary promised a pizza party to the classroom that brought in the most toys.

Chris’ parents, Dani and Ted, supplied the pizza, cookies and drinks.

“Not only were people generous, but also the outpouring of support from people who wanted to help me in any way possible was incredible,” Zachary said.

The momentum kept growing.

A family from a town 45 minutes away heard about the project and hosted their own toy drive to help.

A woman who saw one of Zachary’s fliers at a local restaurant hosted a toy drive at her workplace.

In the end, he received donations from as far away as South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Delivering the toys

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Collecting the toys was inspiring, but Zachary said the most rewarding part was delivering the toys to the hospital.

“It all truly hit me during the day of the delivery,” he said.

Zachary and his community had filled a 12-foot moving truck with toys. Each toy had been counted, sorted and placed in a labeled box.

There were so many toys and so many Scout volunteers that there almost wasn’t enough room at the hospital.

Amy Carter, lead Child Life specialist at Comer, told Zachary it was one of the largest donations the hospital has ever received.

Each toy, Carter said, will make a difference in the life of a child. Each toy will “Lift a Spirit.”

“It distracts them from the pain and the anxiety of what’s happening,” Carter told WGN-TV. “Sometimes when they’re confined to their room for a really long period of time, it’s the only thing that can get them by.”

Assessing the moment

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Zachary has been in Scouting for seven years — ever since he was a Tiger. His mom Michele has been right there throughout.

While she never doubted Zachary would complete his project, she “never imagined that he would have filled that truck,” she said. “It still amazes me to think that he collected over $15,000 in items.”

Michele got understandably emotional when describing her son’s Scouting journey.

“I still remember when he came home from kindergarten, waving a Boy Scout summer flier in his hand yelling, ‘Mommy, I want to do this!'” she said. “No longer does a little boy in an oversized blue Cub Scout uniform with an orange neckerchief stand in front of me, but a young man in his Boy Scout uniform.”