State Police Toy Drive Keeps Kids Smiling

Categories: Events

A toy from Santa Claus can bring a smile to a child’s face on Christmas Day. But a toy from the annual State Police “Stuff a Cruiser” Toy Drive can bring smiles to children who pass through the Emergency Department (ED) at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center 365 days a year.

Six-year-old Dillon DaFonseca was all smiles in the Emergency Department after being presented an action figure by Lauren Smizer, Child Life Specialist.

For 6-year-old Dillon DaFonseca, it was an Avengers Age of Ultron action figure that made him smile the day he was brought into the ED for evaluation in late November. Dillon, who is a twin and a former patient of Connecticut Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, weighing 2 pounds, 14 ounces, at birth, came to the ED with his dad, Mark DaFonseca, of West Granby, after unsuccessfully fighting an infection on and off for a month and a half.

“He had a fever with a 104-degree temperature on Sunday,” his dad said. “This morning when he woke up, he threw up – mostly due to the coughing – and he was screaming in pain about his neck, so here we are. We have to figure this out.”

200 Kids a Day

On any given day, as many as 200 children like Dillon arrive at Connecticut Children’s ED from across the region with broken bones, head lacerations, respiratory issues, fever, dehydration and other medical emergencies. Arriving by ambulance or car, sick or injured, nearly all of these children arrive in pain and are afraid of the unknown.

But for the nearly 60,000 children who pass through the ED each year, fear turns to courage and tears turn to smiles when the expert emergency care they receive is accompanied by a carefully selected toy from the ED toy closet – a room stocked (and frequently restocked) with action figures, card games, coloring books, crafts and other small items for children of all ages.

Kyrlyanne Ortiz, 10, selected a toy from Terry Coco, Family Liaison and ED Interpreter, and Taylor Helm, RN.

“We love the State Police Toy Drive,” said Taylor Helm, RN, who is both an ED nurse and a longtime State Police Toy Drive volunteer.  “Without this toy drive, specifically, we wouldn’t be able to provide toys to ED patients throughout the year like we do.”

A toy is more than just a gift to a child.

“A toy helps as a distraction,” Taylor explained.  “It especially helps when kids need sutures or when we administer IVs, which is one the most frequent things we do. Kids are afraid of needles.”

For one little boy facing an intravenous (IV) placement, the promise of a toy dinosaur after his procedure made all the difference.

Toys a Great Normalizer

Assisting the ED nursing staff are Child Life specialists – one assigned each day – who will meet with families, talk to them about their children’s procedures and help assess needs, including whether a toy would be beneficial prior to a procedure or after, or if needed at all.

Lead Child Life Specialist Christine Tatem, who has been a State Police Toy Drive volunteer for the past 17 years herself, remembers vividly the difference a toy made in the life of one 3-year-old girl who had come through the ED and was clearly frightened by the experience. “Post-op, I showed up with two toys,” Christine said, “and she asked, ‘I can play?’”

Upon assurance that she could, indeed, “play,” the child selected her favorite – a “My Little Pony” craft kit – and proceeded to do so, relaxed and calm.

“It’s amazing how a toy changed this child’s experience,” Christine said. “Toys provide something safe and familiar in an environment that is so scary and foreign to them. It totally turns their experience around.”

Beyond the ED

While toy donations come from a variety of sources, the bulk of the items for the ED come from the State Police “Stuff a Cruiser” Toy Drive, which is now entering its 21st year.

During the holidays, toy donations are also distributed to patients on the inpatient floors at the Medical Center, and some toys are used to help patient families in need.

Terry Coco, Family Liaison and ED Interpreter, who has worked part-time in Connecticut Children’s Emergency Department for the past 15 years, recently encountered a family in the ED who had a lot of needs.

“It was a mom with two girls and two boys – 6, 4, 2 and a newborn,” said Terry, who is another faithful State Police Toy Drive volunteer among the ED staff. “We put together some bags of toys to send home with the mother; those will be the only Christmas gifts those children will receive. The mom started crying. We made her day.”

 “Some people don’t have anything, and when we have extreme circumstances, we like to help when we can,” she said.

2017 Toy Drive

State Trooper Mark Langlais enjoyed the reaction of Cazmere Taylor, who was all smiles last year as the recipient of a Hot Wheels set. (Photo: December 2016)

Over the past two decades, Connecticut Children’s ED nurses, Child Life specialists, Foundation employees and many others have helped the troopers staff the Toy Drive collection sites. Last year’s State Police Toy Drive brought in an estimated 10,000 toys and $15,000. Money from the Toy Drive goes to the ED and is used to replenish the toy supply throughout the year.

This year, State Police from Troop H in Hartford will once again team up with ambulance personnel from Ambulance Service of Manchester and the Aetna Ambulance Service to collect toys and cash donations for Connecticut Children’s ED at three Toys “R” Us locations, including Newington, Manchester and West Hartford, December 14-17.

And on Dec. 19, a truck filled with toys will head to Connecticut Children’s, where the troopers and ambulance personnel will unload and distribute the items on stretchers in the ED and on the inpatient floors with the assistance of Child Life staff, bringing smiles to many children.

“The men and women of Troop H and the Connecticut State Police truly enjoy volunteering their own time at the Toy Drive,” said Lt. Michael Pendleton, of Troop H – Hartford. “We meet fantastic people throughout the event and it’s reassuring to know there are so many people who are selfless, generous and caring. Their support is appreciated in so many ways.”

“We continue to work with Connecticut Children’s simply because it’s the right thing to do,” Lt. Pendleton said. “If we can’t find joy and happiness by providing a toy to a sick child at Connecticut Children’s during the holiday season, then we are in the wrong line of work.”

State Police “Stuff a Cruiser” Details