Emma Vulpi was just 7 years old when she made an important decision that would ultimately impact hundreds of local children.
During a car ride with her mother, Michele, in 2019, Emma decided what she wanted to do with the rest of the gift cards she received for her Dec. 16 birthday.
“She said, ‘Ma, I know what I want to do with my gift cards,’ like out of nowhere. It was just weird because it was already January, and she hadn’t used any of them,” Michele said. “I thought she was going to say slime, because slime was huge back then.
Since that seventh birthday, she doesn’t ask for gifts for herself, only gift cards and pajamas for sick kids in the hospital.
“We met one girl when we went to the hospital for the first time and she was sick with cancer,” Emma said. “We went to her room and we gave her lots of gifts, and she was younger than me.”
This year, Emma received over $3,000 for her birthday so she could buy toys for kids. The John Theissen Children’s Foundation in Wantagh was the benefactor of Emma’s generosity.
Theissen began collecting and distributing toys in 1992 to benefit children in local hospitals. Four years prior to the start of his charitable efforts, as a 17-year-old, Theissen spent the holidays being treated for a brain tumor at Schneider’s Children’s Hospital.
While in the hospital, Theissen met Tasha, a 7-year-old cancer patient who had no family that would visit her. When Christmas came around and all of the children had the opportunity to visit with Santa and receive a present, Tasha had no family members to go with her.
Theissen’s mother, Roberta, offered to take her, but the little girl was upset that John was unable to go with her, as he had just had major brain surgery.
When Tasha met Santa later that day and was offered a stuffed teddy bear, she told Santa that she wanted to give the bear to her friend, John, to make him feel better.
Emma, along with her mother, aunt, grandmother, and grandfather went and dropped off bags and bags of toys at Theissen’s foundation headquarters on Dec. 22. Theissen was excited to meet a young girl who was as passionate about toy-giving as he was.
“You’re a saint, and you’re so far ahead of where I was at 11 years old,” Theissen said. “Think about it, if you stick with this, you can make so much of a difference by the time you’re my age.”
Emma and her mother chose Theissen’s foundation this year in hopes to share the wealth with places that might not get as many donations. They shopped at Walmart, Target, Carter’s and other stores to get a variety of gifts for all ages.
Theissen told them that the toys would be sent out to needy kids the next day.
Emma, a fifth-grader at Meadowbrook Elementary School, participates in musical theater and is a member of K-Kids, the elementary school version of Kiwanis. She’s always cared about others, and has aspirations to be a doctor when she grows up.
“I’m not the type of person who says that I want this or I want this,” Emma said. “I want to help people because some people don’t have anything, not even a bed to sleep in.”
Michele explained that she and her husband Patrick don’t shy away from any questions Emma has about what’s going on in the world. “We talk about everything, and that’s how I grew up,” Michele said. “There’s nothing we shy around about and we talk about everything. She knows about what’s going on in the world, she watches the news, and we talk about it.”
Emma’s toy donations are not the only way she and her family expresses their charity. Together, they donate food during holidays, adopt and shop for families, and have cooked for people in shelters during the holidays.
But the toy idea, Michele said, was all Emma. “She’s just that type of kid. Me and her dad joke like ‘where did she come from,’ but she’s so great.”
Emma hopes to get the East Meadow School District involved one day, and have every kid donate one toy for their birthday.
“Helping people shows that you’re not selfish,” Emma said. “It’s not because you want to go on the news or anything, it’s because you feel good after, you feel better.”