Video: Toy drive pays tribute to a boy who made his mark

  1. Closed captioning of: Toy drive pays tribute to a boy who made his mark

    >>> our "making a difference" report tonight is the story of a boy who knew all too well how hard it is for a kid to be sick at christmastime and wanted to make sure other kids going through what he did were remembered during the holidays. "making a difference" in the true christmas spirit , kevin tibbles has our report from chicago tonight .

    >> reporter: chicago and cold! it's like the north pole and these are elves.

    >> thank you.

    >> reporter: yet, on this day they're not here for santa, but for a boy naked mark.

    >> he had a compassion and a love for people like i've never seen in my life.

    >> reporter: mark stayly spent six years in and out of chicago 's children's hospital battling cancer and he knew all too well no child wants to be sick, ever, let alone at christmas. so ten years ago with help from family and friends mark started a toy drive, handing out toys to fellow patients. when he died in 2006 , he made his mom, sue, promise to carry on.

    >> we hand out hope.

    >> there's the smile.

    >> reporter: from 150 toys a decade ago to more than 30,000 this year!

    >> mark would love this.

    >> reporter: all donated and then sorted at the new firehouse in mark's hometown of sherwood, illinois.

    >> this is all from the generosity of a little boy that thought of others. when we see the babies' faces it makes up for all the hard work we do.

    >> reporter: the toys are hand-delivered with love at children's and two other hospitals.

    >> oh, yeah, that's what i want.

    >> reporter: this 6-year-old connor is awaiting a bone marrow transplant.

    >> what did you get?

    >> what i wanted.

    >> reporter: this 9-year-old has krohn's disease.

    >> his eyes got huge. very huge.

    >> whenever i see a kid smile i know mark's with us and mission accomplished .

    >> reporter: and what does sue think mark would say about all this?

    >> he'd be like, yeah, she's doing what i asked her to do and she kept her promise to me.

    >> merry christmas .

    >> reporter: from a boy's whose own spirit couldn't be broken, the spirit of christmas lives on.

    >> merry christmas !

    >> reporter: kevin tibbles, nbc news, chicago .

    >>> there's more on the story on our new "making a difference" website. you'll see a link that takes you right there on our website nightly@msnbc.com.

By NBC News Producer
updated 12/21/2010 7:19:23 PM ET 2010-12-22T00:19:23

Talking with Sue Staehely and visiting with her "elves" makes one realize how much her son, Mark, is still very much with them. Some still find it hard to talk about the toy drive without tearing up because, as they will tell you, it meant so much to Mark.

He was apparently an engaging and big-hearted child who "had the holiday spirit 365 days a year," his mother says. He was a favorite of the doctors and nurses who cared for him during his six-year battle with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a painful cancer that attacks the muscles and spinal cord. Mark endured three stem cell transplants, radiation and the loss of all his teeth, yet remission remained out of reach.

Sue was a little nervous that the struggling economy might diminish this year's toy drive. But once again Mark's hometown of Shorewood and the surrounding villages came through. The toy drive has broadened into a community-wide event. 

For a frenetic three days, a scant eight or 10 friends and family members unload hundreds of bags and boxes sent by school bus and private car to the new Troy Township Fire Station, where they are temporarily stored. Then for two solid days, the little band of elves sorts thousands of toys by age and gender, and packs them in large gift bags.

In the five years since Mark died, the annual toy drive is a kind of homecoming for Sue and her elves. Medical staff welcome them with open arms, hugs, even jokes. A favorite nurse even gave up a day off to help unload and hand out the toy bags. Sue's eyes grew moist a few times during this year's toy fest, but mostly it was the parents of the patients getting the gifts who were moved to tears.

Story: Ordinary people, extraordinary giving

As for the little recipients themselves -- who suffer from cancer, Crohn's disease, bone marrow transplants among other illnesses -- it's unlikely any of them understand the full gravity of their own situations. All they know was that a bunch of grown-ups dressed in red and green with antlers on their heads gave them some of the coolest Christmas loot they'd ever scored. And all because of a guy named Mark.

Editor's Note:After his death, Mark's family began a foundation to raise money for pediatric cancer research called MarkYourMark7: http://www.makeyourmark7.org/aboutus.html. So far they've raised about $200,000, all of which has been donated to Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Watch NBC Nightly News on Tuesday for more about the Make Your Mark Foundation:

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