December 21, 2016 | by City of Hope
It’s an unfortunate side effect of having cancer: spending the holidays in the hospital. For children, it can be an especially difficult time of year.
Lucky for them there are people like Ryan Russek.
Twelve years ago, Russek was a regular on the City of Hope campus, visiting often with his father, Ron, who was a kidney cancer patient under the care of medical oncologist Przemyslaw Twardowski, M.D.
“Dad and I were walking the halls at Helford [Clinical Research Hospital] and noticing the children,” Russek said. “We knew that some of them would be home for the holidays, but others would not. I made it my goal that year to make the best Christmas for them I could.”
A Tradition Begins
In 2004, Russek started Wish upon a Toy, a nonprofit charity that brings holiday gifts and toys to children and adults in the hospital. That first year, Russek and his dad bought as many toys as they could afford and handed them out to patients on the pediatric unit.
“I could see the kids getting super excited with joy,” Russek said. “Dad and I knew we wanted this to be something we did every year.”
Determined to make the holidays happen again the next year, Russek and and his father reached out to Russek's local church for toy and financial donations. Hoping for at least one gift per pediatric patient, they ended up with many times that number.
On Christmas morning 2005, the gifts were wrapped and ready. Father and son were preparing to make the trip to Duarte when Russek's father suddenly passed away. Despondent but determined, Russek made the trip to campus with his mother that Christmas morning, where they delivered gifts to the grateful and excited children.
“For a moment – just a moment – they were able to forget they were sick,” Russek said. “I knew the pain the parents must have felt, because I had just lost Dad hours before. I knew I wanted to keep this toy drive going every single year for him – and I wanted it to get bigger and bigger.”
That’s one wish that has come true for Russek. Wish upon a Toy now distributes gifts to patients at hospitals throughout Los Angeles. Russek, a senior buyer at Carmax, was featured in Fortune magazine as one of the “Heroes of the 500.”
A Legacy of Giving
Two years after starting Wish upon a Toy, Russek had the idea of setting up a pop-up toy store the week before Christmas so that families unable to go holiday shopping could “shop” on campus from the collected donated toys and gifts.
“We are now a two-day event,” he said. “Being there a week before Christmas allows patients with children and grandchildren to get gifts they wouldn’t be able to because of financial hardship or being sick. They can’t leave the hospital, so we bring the toys to them.”
City of Hope recreational therapist Edwin Domingo has coordinated the Wish upon a Toy visit since it began more than decade ago.
“What Ryan does for our patients is amazing,” Domingo said. “I don’t think even he knows the impact that he’s making on them. They are so appreciative that they get this opportunity to holiday shop for their loved ones. They mention it to me all the time, throughout the year, how much if meant to them.”
Now in its 10th year, the Wish upon a Toy storefront will be set up for patients in the “Toy Room” on the fifth floor of Helford Hospital.
“Fill the Ambulance” gift collection events are taking place at the Target store in Duarte.
And Russek will once again be on the pediatric unit Christmas morning, handing out toys and spreading some much-needed holiday cheer.
“It’s really cool for me to be a part of something like this,” he said. “To help people in a really bad spot have some sort of normalcy.”
For more information on Wish upon a Toy and to watch a video filmed at City of Hope, visit the organization’s website.