Malea Martinez, sporting a fluffy white jacket to handle the frigid morning air, stood in a truck bed Thursday, packing it with toys for kids in need. While the 6-year-old’s family handed her just one box or toy at a time from their garage, she asked for more to be piled on. As more games and toys were added to the growing stack in her small, gloved hands, she prepared to place them with the others.
“I can do it,” Malea shouted as she moved the toys into place, an unknowing connection to the battle she faced as a child. “I can do it.”
As she placed the toys next to the others in the truck, a smile painted across her face and her arms shot into the air, her family cheering.
Over the last month, Malea Martinez has gathered hundreds of toys and hundreds of dollars to donate to Children’s Hospital and Brent’s Place in the Denver area in an effort to give back to the people who helped save her life.
And while others have helped little bits along the way, everyone involved agreed on one thing; this was all Malea’s doing.
The beginning of Malea Martinez’ life was not an easy one, being born with a rare disorder that heavily impacted her immune system.
Melissa Perea-Martinez, her mother, said her daughter was born with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, SCID is a group of rare disorders caused by mutations in different genes involved in the development and function of infection-fighting immune cells. Infants who are born with SCID, according to an NIAID page on the disease, appear healthy at birth but are highly susceptible to severe infections.
“We didn’t know anything was wrong before she was born,” Perea-Martinez said. “Finding out after your child is born (that) she doesn’t have an immune system and she is going to have to undergo a bone marrow transplant was hard to hear.”
Perea-Martinez and her family stayed at Brent’s Place, a nonprofit in Aurora that houses families of sick children, while Malea underwent treatment at Children’s Hospital; this treatment, she said, included 20 days of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants.
Malea Martinez spent a total of 172 days in the hospital after she was born. But the little girl’s story didn’t stop there, as she was eventually healthy enough to leave the hospital and head home.
“This journey she has been on was a tough (one), but we have learned so much and we continue to count our blessings every day because of it,” Perea-Martinez said. “It has changed our lives and so many lives around us.”
Perea-Martinez said last year Malea came up with the idea to donate toys to the children being treated at Children’s Hospital and staying at Brent’s Place, locations she received many gifts of her own during treatment. This year, beginning Nov. 14, Perea-Martinez said the family started accepting donations of toys or money that would eventually be given back.
“She said she received so many wonderful things that she wanted to do this to give back to those kids,” Perea-Martinez said. “She is so interested in bringing smiles to those who are (patients) at Children’s. … and bring a smile to their face this Christmas.”
“I wanted to make the kids happy,” Malea Martinez said Thursday morning.
Jeremy Martinez, Malea’s father, said that to this day Malea remembers toys that she was given while she was being treated, and just wanted to give back.
Over the last month, Perea-Martinez said Malea took over her Facebook and Instagram pages, posting videos and pictures of her growing collection of donations stored in her garage under a sign reading “Malea’s Toy Drive.” Every donor also got their own video, with Malea thanking them for helping out.
Perea-Martinez said Malea ran the entire thing, with her family just being there for small bits of support or technical help.
Since beginning the collection, the toy drive brought in hundreds of toy donations and hundreds of dollars, all of which were gathered up Thursday morning to be dropped off at Children’s Hospital and Brent’s Place.
For many involved in the campaign, or just those who have watched Malea through this donation journey, the care and compassion she has put forward to others is inspiring and a point of pride.
Perea-Martinez said the entire thing has given the family an even better outlook on Christmas, illustrating the positivity and giving spirit anyone can get into, especially when giving back to an organization that helped Malea. She added that, throughout the last month as Malea got more and more toys in, she didn’t go through the pile looking for something she would want, but expressed pure excitement that she had another toy to donate.
She said none of this would be possible if others had not donated to her daughter all those years ago.
“Without all of these wonderful, generous friends and family and people we don’t even know, this would not be happening,” Perea-Martinez said. “It has been so amazing the amount of donations she has been able to collect for Children’s, (and) I hope everybody knows how good it is making her feel knowing she is doing something for another child.”
“I am proud this is what she wants to do,” Jeremy Martinez said. “She just wants to be able to give back because so many people gave (to her).”
Janelle Saya, Malea’s teacher through Thompson Connect Online, said the entire thing left her speechless for how many lives her student has touched. She said while she has taught her class this year to show generosity and kindness to others, Malea has been nothing short of an inspiration.
“You think a (6)-year-old can’t change the world but that is far from the truth,” she said. “She is making a big impact and she is a special little girl.”
“What this little girl is doing is remarkable,” she later added.
Representatives from Brent’s Place and Children’s Hospital were impacted by Malea’s kindness and what the donations will mean to kids in situations similar to what she went through.
Allen Browning, family support director at Brent’s Place, said he worked closely with Malea’s family during her treatment. He said it has been incredible to not only see her get healthy, but come back years later to help others as the driving force behind a donation campaign.
“That is really cool,” he said. “It is cool to see a 6-year-old have so much passion to give back after she has gone through so much; it is really empowering.”
Emily Kohn, administrative professional with Children’s Hospital’s volunteer office, said she was present when Malea dropped off the donation and was happy to be a part of it.
“It is always so special when patients and families or people who have a connection to Children’s decide to donate … it is always such a special opportunity to be a part of that,” she said. “It is a testament to the standard of care Children’s provides and the sense of family it creates.”
Shannon Kitts, child life supervisor at Children’s Hospital, said donations like that of Malea’s will be used in a number of ways at the hospital, be it in normalizing the environment, serving as a goal-oriented prize or to signify a milestone in treatment.
“It is so special to have patients want to give back to a facility they have been treated at,” she said.
While others have commented on the impact this donation will make and the meaning behind it, Malea’s reason for doing it was simple; she wanted to make others happy.
“They’re going to be so excited,” Malea said as she helped pack up for delivery. “I wanted to see all the smiles on all those kids’ faces.”
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