ORLANDO - In the basement of his home in Orland Park, 13-year-old Ray Vanco stands smiling among a veritable mountain of gift-wrapped presents: toy trucks, stuffed animals, board games, electronic keyboards and action figures.
It's a Christmas bonanza, and Ray looks giddy as a kid on Christmas morning — except none of the presents are for him. He's been collecting the gifts for sick children at local hospitals.
"When I was eight, when I was in the hospital, I just thought I should do something for the other kids," Ray says nonchalantly, seemingly almost embarrassed that someone would be interested in what he does.
That is, play Santa for sick children, just to see the smiles on their faces. In a few days, the toys will be boxed, labeled and trucked to Children's Memorial Hospital, University of Chicago Corner Children's Hospital and La Rabida Children's Hospital.
And he's been doing it for five years in a row, ever since he was diagnosed with Pseudotumor cerebri — a rare ailment in which cerebral fluid presses against his brain and optic nerve. The disease has plagued him ever since, and he returned to the hospital this week for more surgery.
Over the years he's endured a grueling series of brain surgeries and spinal taps. He says the one thing that always made him happy while he was in the hospital was presents. So he decided to give back.
"When Ray got out of the hospital the first time, at 11 o'clock that night he said I know what I want to do for those kids," says his mother Kris. "He made me get on the Internet and he sat down with me and we looked up how to donate toys to the hospital."
Ray began posting fliers on car windows at shopping malls asking for donations. The first year he received one thousand donated presents that he stacked in his mom's living room. He now accepts donations online, and this year he has almost 5,000 toys. The brightly colored packages fill the basement.
"The pride that I have," says Kris, adding that she originally thought Ray would stop after one year. But then October came around again, and Ray asked when they were going to start the toy drive again.
The biggest gift this year: a laptop, which children can use in their hospital beds.
"As far as the kids know, it comes from Santa Claus," says Kris. "It's very touching how he can be so giving even while he's battling his own illness."