Her Toy Story: Local Woman's Personal Struggle Becomes an Uplifting Mission

When her 7-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia almost 20 years ago, Colleen Kisel's life was upended. As she helped him fight, she found new purpose in her life at the Treasure Chest Foundation.

They have just about run out of room.

The boxes lining the shelves at are bursting with Barbies, Hot Wheels and Candyland. With Director Colleen Kisel leading the charge, the foundation is months away from moving to a 3,600-square-foot facility three times the size of its current home.

It's a far cry from the foundation's original location—Kisel's garage. Fifteen years ago, Kisel dreamed up an organization that provides children undergoing cancer treatments with much-needed distraction and levity. After watching her 7-year-old son Martin undergo four years of treatment for leukemia, she learned firsthand the role a toy could play.

Toys helped him through 18 spinal taps and nine bone marrow aspirations in four years, she said. And toys returned her life to normal after his cancer had been put into remission.

Before his diagnosis in 1993, Colleen Kisel considered herself a happy person.

She was a hairstylist and managed a salon. She was in the final stages of launching her own customer service presentation program (which she later accomplished). She was a mother of two sons, Martin and Tom. Her life was exactly as she hoped it would be. 

Then came the cancer. Marty, 7, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia.

"Everything crashed," Kisel said.

Her work at the salon and personal entrepreneurial efforts went on the back burner as she turned her focus to Marty.

"I devoted my life to taking my son back and forth from the hospital," Kisel said. "I spent my nights just kneeling at his bedside.

"It feels like every day, you just hope he doesn't die."

Her prayers were answered when his cancer went into remission. Now 26 years old, it has never returned. Martin is a healthy 20-something, with an art degree from Robert Morris University.

It took time for Kisel to bounce back after Martin's treatments, however. As she slowly crept her way back into her job as hairstylist, something was tugging at her.

Kisel remembered the extra push a plush toy or new game seemed to give Martin during his treatment, and she was moved to do something more. What if she could put a toy into the hands of every local child undergoing cancer treatment at ?

With a big heart and a huge goal, Kisel started collecting new, unwrapped toys and storing them in her garage. She dug through trash bins at night looking for boxes in which to store the toys. From a garage, she moved the donations to a storage unit. From the storage unit, she moved to a warehouse and office in Orland Park. She never thought her work would go national.

Today, The Treasure Chest stocks the closets and toy trunks of 39 cancer treatment centers nationwide, putting toys in the hands of about 7,600 children undergoing cancer treatments each month. The bulk of the donations pile up during the Christmas season, with the help of more than 80 toy drives in Oak Forest, Orland Park, Frankfort, Tinley Park, Bridgeview, Romeoville, Lombard, Chicago Heights, New Lenox and other suburbs. The first donation made to the foundation was a Troll-topped pencil. Now they come in as board games, action figures, dolls, crafts, Teddy bears—even scooters.

Kisel credits her organization's success to her ability to communicate and her entrepreneurial spirit. She is a member of the public speaking group Toastmasters. She has a knack for communicating her mission, but feels her personal story has played the biggest role in her foundation's growth.

"I speak from my heart, and it's a good story," she said. "That's the key."

For more information on the Pediatric Oncology Treasure Chest Foundation, or for information on how to get involved, visit the foundation's website.

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