After a devastating leukemia diagnosis early this year, Sadie Keller spent a rough first month mostly in the hospital, followed by weekly chemotherapy treatments. If there is ever an excuse to be focused on yourself, her mother says, it’s when you are 8 years old and have cancer.
But Sadie is just not that kind of girl.
Now in remission, but not even a year into her 2½ years of treatment, Sadie knows how unhappy she would be if she had to wake up in the hospital on Christmas morning. So in her typical giving spirit, she launched a toy drive dubbed “Sadie’s Sleigh” to make sure kids in the hospital have the same kind of Christmas they would have at home, with plenty of presents.
Far exceeding her expectations, Sadie drew donations of nearly 1,300 top-notch toys, making this Christmas extra special for kids being treated for cancer and blood disorders at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, the hospital where Sadie was treated upon her diagnosis on Feb. 25.
Being in the hospital was “not fun,” she recalled, and she wanted to go home very badly.
“I would be sad if I was in the hospital on Christmas, and I don’t know how much toys Santa gives to the hospital,” Sadie told TODAY.com earlier this week.
“When you’re at home, you have the best Christmas ever,” she added. “When you’re in the hospital, you don’t have a very good Christmas. I just wanted it to be better for them.”
Sadie says she feels good helping other people. Her mom says that’s the kind of kid she is.
“She is just the most caring, sweetest, selfless little girl, and she’s always been like that,” Sarah Keller said. “She’s always cared about how others are feeling more than herself, even before she was diagnosed. Since she was diagnosed, it’s just kind of shined through even more.”
Sadie came up with the idea for the drive last month after asking her oncologist whether Santa comes to the hospital. Assured that he did, Sadie wondered how he finds the kids and whether he can carry enough gifts.
Her effort began with a video posted on YouTube on Nov. 20 that her mom shared on Facebook. While her initial goal was 300 toys, she and her family were blown away as box after box of toys arrived daily at their home in Lantana, Texas, and at a local fire house.
“It looked like we were a toy store,” Sadie said with glee. “I felt really happy and I was just thankful for everybody who gave us toys. I was very proud of how much we got.”
The gifts — bikes and Barbie houses, scooters and Legos, presents for infants and teens — were tallied at 1,276. Many arrived from around the country with notes sharing personal experiences with cancer and sending prayers to Sadie.
The drive was a nice diversion for Sadie, a third-grader who has not been back to school since she got sick. She was excited to open the boxes and organize the toys, which were lined up along the walls of the Keller home.
Last week, the gifts were amassed in the family’s driveway, and a moving company donated a van to haul the gifts to the hospital. The sheer number of gifts was symbolic for Sarah Keller.
“It just kind of stopped me in my tracks and really kind of made me never doubt her power of what she can do throughout this journey,” she said. “She has touched so many people.
“The thing that warms my heart the most is that she doesn’t get it all,” she added. “She doesn’t get that what she is doing is anything special.”
Following hospital tradition, Santa will hand out three presents to each patient and one to their siblings on Christmas morning. The Kellers donated their gifts to the kids in the hematology and oncology unit, where the 32 beds were full earlier in the week.
The Christmas gift program relies mostly on donations, and usually receives less expensive items and stuffed animals, says Caitlin Arndt, a child-life specialist at the hospital. The loot from Sadie’s Sleigh is giving the hospital a better selection of gifts this year.
“Getting things like bikes and scooters and big Elsa dolls, all of those things that kids actually want, it will be really nice to be able to provide that for them,” Arndt said, adding that the extras will be used for end-of-chemotherapy and birthday celebrations.
Arndt, who has a close relationship with Sadie, sees her as a role model for other patients.
“I think she’s amazing; she makes my job a lot easier because she copes so well and she is doing so great,” Arndt says. “It’s nice to see a patient who takes everything in stride and turns it into something positive and uses her diagnosis to make a difference.”
TODAY.com contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter: @lisaflam