Channeling Santa’s devoted elves, Anthony Elenterio and Joe Rosimini, of Bellmore, stormed the Westbury Walmart the Friday before Christmas to shop for action figures, board games and other gift items. They were not for their children, though — instead, they were arranged into a toy store display for the patients and families at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens.
Elenterio, 38, has organized the toy store at Cohen’s for the past eight years. The annual tradition began as an altruistic exercise for him and his colleagues at Cintas Corporation so they could work together for a good cause. The store is set up at the hospital each year to give parents who spend the holidays there an opportunity to do some Christmas shopping.
“For parents that have a kid in the hospital, that’s the last thing they have time for,” Elenterio said, “so we bring the holiday store to them.”
Donation boxes were set up at each of Cintas’s regional locations to collect unwrapped gifts for the store. Elenterio also created a GoFundMe page to raise money to purchase additional gifts; as of press time, it had raised $2,750. On Dec. 20, 20 Cintas employees volunteered to shop for gifts at Walmart, and on Dec. 22, 30 volunteered to staff the toy store.
That day, Elenterio’s team festively decorated a few rooms of the medical center to create the toy store. The gifts were set up in age order, from infant to teenager. To “purchase” gifts, parents were given one ticket for each child they had in the hospital, and an additional ticket for each of their other children. Cintas employees, rebranded as “holiday elves,” helped parents choose gifts, then wrapped them free of charge, and parents gave them to their children in their rooms. Extra gifts were packed in individual Santa bags and left outside each child’s room door for them to open on Christmas morning.
The most rewarding part of the job, Elenterio said, is helping the parents provide a sense of normalcy for their children during the holidays. “That’s really the gift — to give the parents an opportunity to be their kid’s hero,” he said. “It’s a tough time in their lives, but this helps them give their children some sort of Christmas.”
Faye Brick-Hochheiser manages the Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Program at Cohen’s, and has watched Elenterio’s toy store grow over the years.
“Some of the hospitalizations are unplanned or last minute, and [parents lose] so much independence as they care for their child in the hospital,” Brick-Hochheiser said. “Anthony saw this gap in the system, and he filled in beautifully. It means so much to the families, and the volunteers feel privileged to be a part of this process, as well.”
Rosimini said that volunteering for the toy store is “the greatest thing I do all year,” but it is bittersweet. “In one breath you feel great for doing a wonderful thing, but in the other you can’t forget why you’re there,” he said. “I can only imagine the stress these families are feeling, but seeing the parents’ reactions is priceless.”
That situation is something Elenterio is familiar with. When he was 9, his sister, Nicole, died of sepsis at Cohen’s on Aug. 21, 1991. She was 8. When his now 5-year-old son, Nico, had a cancer scare before he turned 1, he was treated at Cohen’s.
Like Nico, who is named after Elenterio’s late sister, the holiday toy store honors Nicole’s memory. “I have a lot of history with that hospital, and I love giving back to them every single year,” Elenterio said.