MARION -- When Jordan Murphy heard about the toy drive hosted by Gander RV & Outdoors in Marion, she couldn't help but pack up her miracle baby, Remy, and his little brother, Jase, and pay a visit to the store last Saturday.
"This is a great thing," said Murphy, corralling 5-year-old Remy as he was gazing wide-eyed at the more than 100 toys already collected on the first day of the drive.
"Look at all these toys, Mommy!" he shouted with a huge grin.
It was a grin like that that inspired Darlene Hutton to organize the drive with the blessing of her employer. Hutton, with full support from Gander Outdoors, is spearheading a toy drive for kids in St. Louis Children's Hospital, specifically the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). New and unwrapped toys, stuffed animals and donations will be taken through Nov. 17 at the Marion store, 2480 Blue Heron Drive.
They are also accepting donations for parents, including toiletries, restaurant and gas gift cards, shirts, blankets, and pillows.
"Everybody's heart when they see a sick kid ... you just want to do so much for them," said Hutton, who manages Gander's apparel and footwear department. Unlike families with hospitalized children, she says, "we can wake up on Christmas morning and celebrate with our families."
Hutton hopes that the toy drive will help bring a bit of home and happiness to families facing a child's illness during the holidays.
On the last day of the drive, Nov. 17, the NICU mobile unit will visit the Gander facility.
"It's really an amazing thing," said Hutton. "They will conduct tours and explain what it takes to keep kids alive."
There will also be a big party on that day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a cookout, free lunch, face painting, and a huge bake sale. Proceeds from the bake sale will go to buying more for the kids.
Gander also has a bin full of toys, priced at around $3 each that customers can buy and donate. Their goal is to donate 500 items, so that every kid in NICU will have a toy on Christmas Day.
Murphy knows what it's like to be hours from home on Christmas, in a hospital surrounded by strangers. Remy was born Oct. 16, 2014 and spent his first 106 days in the NICU. He weighed just under four pounds and suffered from a condition called "VACTERL-H," in which the H stands for hydrocephalus.
Murphy said that condition of Remy's was diagnosed in-utero at 19 weeks, by specialists at Boston's Children's Hospital.
"It's extra water on the brain," she said. "He's had three surgeries for that."
Remy, now a bustling 5-year-old, has had 17 surgeries altogether.
"He's a walking miracle," said Murphy, watching Remy check out the toys and tour an RV with Gander's RV Manager Cody Isaac.
She said Remy's doctors don't know if his problems just happened or if they are a result of his premature birth.
"We knew about the hydrocephalus," she said. "They told us that he could have cerebral palsy, be wheelchair bound, reliant on a feeding, or have autism and learning disabilities."
So, they fight through brain surgeries, shunts, a tethered spinal cord, and the discovery that Remy has only one functioning kidney -- which rules out contact sports, for life.
And while Murphy said that worrying about your own child is bad enough, NICU parents are also keenly aware of what other parents in the unit are going through.
During one of Remy's more lengthy stays, his room was located at the end of a hallway. "People would walk there to cry," she said. "I could hear them. I was torn up over things beyond my own child and his needs."
Murphy said that donations from strangers helped to keep her focused. "You don't realize how much those things count until it hits close to home," she said.
Murphy said there were times she arrived at the hospital with nothing. "There would be a bag waiting at the Ronald McDonald House with razors, deodorant, a toothbrush ... just little things we take for granted."
Based on her own experience, she offered a few more suggestions for the Gander drive, like phone chargers, ear buds, hand sanitizer. "Also, preemie clothes, boppies, swings, socks, receiving blankets."
Murphy said on one holiday someone sent gift sets of Bath & Body Works for the parents. "I almost cried when I got that," she said.
She also added that coloring books, crayons, and puzzles are great for the kids, as are ear buds for watching movies.
Hutton said she'll add those things to her list of items and is speaking to area businesses about helping. "The community has been great," she said.
Remy walked up to Hutton and gave her a huge hug. He thanked her for helping.
"This is just wonderful," Murphy said.