Five-year-old Dawson Babiak raced off the school bus carrying a gift, followed by a parade of students bearing boxes overflowing with toys, crafts, books—anything that could make a child smile.

The bus full of toys delivered Wednesday to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital—nine days before Christmas—represents a giant thank-you from Dawson’s grateful family and the community of Hopkins.

“It’s heartwarming. It gives me goosebumps,” said Dawson’s mother, Alison Babiak. “Such an outpouring of support.

Nearby, a cart loaded with presents tipped, and toys slid to the ground.

“Boom, goes the dynamite!” Dawson said. “It’s an avalanche of toys.”

A year ago, this joyful day would have been tough to imagine, Alison said.

On Nov. 17, 2014, the Babiaks learned Dawson had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He spent a couple of weeks in the hospital before Thanksgiving and another long stretch just before Christmas.

“When Dawson was diagnosed with leukemia, it was the biggest shock of our lives,” said his father, Jason Babiak. “You almost lose hope.”

They found hope not only in the medical team that treated Dawson’s leukemia, but in the support from friends and family and even strangers who donated to the hospital.

A toy, a visit from Santa, a prize after a “poke” or a craft project brought joy on bleak days.

“Just that smile that he gets when he gets a prize or feels like he can do something—that puts a smile on the parents faces, too,” Jason said.

With Dawson doing better now, Jason launched the Epic Toy Drive in Hopkins Public Schools, where he’s also a high school science teacher.

Dawson and his 8-year-old brother, Mason, joined the effort.

The parents were stunned by the response from the Hopkins schools and community. Toys poured in—hula hoops, action figures, coloring books, trucks and dolls. A friendly competition between the schools increased the excitement.

The value of the gifts totaled more than $8,500.

Every contribution was touching, Jason said, from the $1,500 donation from a couple of parents to the single Matchbox car bought by a child.

“Last Thanksgiving and last Christmas were pretty traumatic,” Alison said. “This year, to be able to give back, is incredible.”

“It’s amazing, just amazing,” Jason agreed.

‘Not just toys’

The busload of toys represents the largest batch of gifts ever delivered to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital—at least in the recollection of the Child Life Services team. And the toys are profoundly important in the care of a sick child, said Audra Holst, a child life specialist.

“It’s not just toys,” she said. “There’s power behind these toys.

“Toys are tools to children. It’s how they explore their world, and it’s how they process what happens here.”

Having a bountiful supply of toys in the playroom provides a sense of normalcy for children experiencing what is decidedly not normal—illness, tests and treatment. Arts, crafts and toys can help children express their feelings, giving caregivers and hospital staff an opening to help children process their health care experience, Holst said.

“Especially around the holidays, these gifts bring hope,” she said. “It’s amazing to me how it can change the entire day for a child and their family. If a child is having a hard day and we bring in a gift like this, it brings smiles and laughter.”

The toys will be stored in a warehouse, and a new shipment will be delivered to the hospital each month. Child life staff will give them to children throughout the year—to celebrate birthdays and milestones, such as the last day of chemo, and to provide comfort on tough days.

“These toys are not just for Christmas. We will be able to spread the joy and the cheer for months to come,” Holst said.

Both the Babiaks’ sons have benefitted from toy donations at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Before Dawson had leukemia, Mason was treated for a blood disorder, Von Willebrand disease. He now just has yearly checkups for the condition.

Dawson is in a maintenance phase of treatment, receiving chemotherapy once a month.

“He is doing fantastic,” Alison said. “He is in kindergarten and he loves school so much.”

Fourteen students came with the school bus to deliver the toys to the hospital. The event was fun and inspiring, said Lexi Cremeans, a senior at Hopkins High School.

“This is amazing—that we can make so many kids Christmas better,” she said.