In 1970, current Cherry Hill resident and former Haddonfield resident Sam Lacroce was at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with his then 7-year-old son, Saverio. Saverio had recently been diagnosed with leukemia and had arrived at CHOP to begin treatment.
After taking him to his room, Lacroce went back to his car to get Saverio’s personal items. When he arrived at the car, he discovered it had been burglarized. All of Saverio’s personal items were stolen, including his favorite toy.
This experience would be the impetus behind a nonprofit Lacroce co-founded more than 40 years later.
In 2011, Lacroce teamed with a number of his friends to start Carz N’ Toyz, a nonprofit organization dedicated to donating toys and funds to local hospitals to help spread happiness to sick children. All of Carz N’ Toyz fundraisers and events are done in memory of Saverio, who died from leukemia in 1975 at the age of 12.
The first delivery
The idea for Carz N’ Toyz came about in the summer of 2011. Lacroce and a number of his friends were all car enthusiasts and got the idea of having a caravan of cars donate toys to a local hospital.
“We started with friends and that’s how it grew,” Lacroce said. “We know a lot of people in the car industry.”
Board member Robert Recchiuti was one of Lacroce’s friends who helped get Carz N’ Toyz off the ground. One of Recchiuti’s first tasks was developing the logo and tagline, “Driven To Care For Kids.” The organization also began spreading the word about its mission.
Recchiuti said it was important for the organization to promote itself without spending too much money on marketing. Carz N’ Toyz prides itself on having 93 percent of its proceeds going toward its beneficiaries.
“We depend on word of month and the kind of promotions that don’t cost too much,” Recchiuti said.
Carz N’ Toyz originally met with Virtua Hospital in 2011 to arrange the first toy run. Richard Miller, president and CEO of Virtua, said he was extremely excited when Lacroce pitched the idea.
“I said bring it on,” Miller said. “I said I’d love to do that. Our kids would love it and the parents would love it.”
Lacroce admitted he was unsure how many toys the organization could deliver in its first year.
“The first year that we met with Virtua, we asked them how many toys they needed,” Lacroce said. “It was only five weeks before Christmas. They said they needed a couple hundred toys.”
When the day of the toy run arrived, the response was enormous. The organization had collected about 800 toys.
“Our jaws dropped on the ground,” Lacroce said.
“I was blown away by the amount of toys,” Miller said. “Not only were we able to do this in Voorhees, but we were able to take this to some of our other locations.”
An annual tradition of giving
For the past five years, Carz N’ Toyz has delivered toys to Virtua every December. The organization collects toys year round from its supporters. The organization also purchases about $3,000 worth of toys to fill special requests.
On the second Saturday of each December, a large group of exotic and classic cars gather at Caffe Aldo Lamberti on Route 70. A police escort and a truck carrying the toys lead the caravan to Virtua.
“Last year, we must have had 100 or more cars in the caravan,” Recchiuti said. “There’s usually two people per car at least. We literally have a police escort to keep this thing organized. I think we had at least 1,000 toys last year, and I expect that number again.”
When the caravan arrives at Virtua, more than 100 people line up outside the hospital in a human chain, passing hundreds of toys down the line. Miller said everyone from guests to employees love to come out.
“They love to see to see the cars and they really like to engage in the process,” Miller said.
Christina Mattison, senior vice president of the Virtua Foundation, said the human chain is a great way for people to discover what the holiday season is all about.
“You see generations there. You see the grandparents, you see the parents and you see the children,” Mattison said.
“It really teaches children what the gift of giving really is,” she added.
After the toys are taken to a conference room, Lacroce will join other Virtua personnel to personally deliver some of the toys.
“Taking a child and putting them in a hospital setting is very traumatic,” Miller said. “When you walk in a room with a toy, they light up. They really light up.”
Spreading happiness year-round
As the years have gone on, Carz N’ Toyz has branched out beyond its toy run. The organization’s largest annual fundraiser is its charity dinner and auction. The organization’s fifth annual dinner was held in October and raised about $90,000.
Since its inception, Carz N’ Toyz has raised more than $400,000 and has used the money to help three main beneficiaries: Virtua, the Osborn Family Health Center at Lourdes in Camden and Weisman Children’s Rehabilitation Centers in Marlton.
Recently, $35,000 was donated to Virtua to construct a play zone, $30,000 was donated to Osborn to help purchase a new ultrasound machine, and $12,000 was donated to Weisman for an eye play system
“I love it,” Lacroce said. “It’s great to be able to raise funds to help sick children. I remember when my son was in the hospital and there were some terrible times we went through.”
Lacroce emphasizes how important it is for the organization to spend most of the money it raises on its beneficiaries.
“It’s all volunteer work,” Lacroce said. “If we take a benefactor out to lunch, we pay out of our own pocket. We’re very strict with what we spend our money on.”
Recchiuti said the most powerful part of working with Carz N’ Toyz is seeing the smiles on the faces of children whom the organization has helped.
“We’ve been privileged to see our work and how it’s helped some kids firsthand,” he said.
Miller said funds from Carz N’ Toyz have helped to fund a variety of Virtua initiatives. One of the biggest ones is the child life specialist program, where specially trained personnel help ease the fear of pediatric patients at the hospital. The program brings items such as toys, crafts and tablets to pediatric patients so they can feel more at home. The program also provides playrooms and spaces to give patients and their loved ones a place to unwind.
Mattison said the funds from Carz N’ Toyz and other organizations keep the child life program going strong.
“All of those things take dollars to support,” Mattison said.
Delivering toys for many years to come
Miller said Virtua plans to partner with Carz N’ Toyz for many years to come. He gave Lacroce a ton of credit for forming Carz N’ Toyz, saying his hard work has benefited hundreds of children from across the Philadelphia area.
“He’s a very special man,” Miller said. “He really gives back.”
Lacroce said the credit for the organization’s success should go to all of the volunteers who have lent a helping hand over the past six years.
“They’re very helpful,” Lacroce said. “I couldn’t do it by myself. We did create an organization where everybody is chipping in.”
Carz N’ Toyz’s sixth annual Toy Run will take place on Saturday, Dec. 10. Participants will gather at Caffe Aldo Lamberti for a complimentary continental breakfast at 9 a.m. At 10 a.m., a police escort will lead a caravan of cars from Caffe Aldo Lamberti to Virtua Voorhees, where more than 1,000 toys will be delivered.
For more information on Carz N’ Toyz, visit www.carzntoyz.org.