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Eli Paladino sits with the toys he received while at Arkansas Children’s Hospital days before Christmas in 2022. The toys would inspire him to give back to other children in the hospital at the holidays. All photos by Nichole Paladino. After collecting money for his toy drive, Eli Paladino personally went to stores on Black Friday to buy the toys he had received the year before for children staying at Arkansas Children’s Hospital over the holidays. After collecting money for his toy drive, Eli Paladino personally went to stores on Black Friday to buy the toys he had received the year before for children staying at Arkansas Children’s Hospital over the holidays. Eli Paladino stands with the toys he purchased for his toy drive fundraiser Nov. 24  before delivering them to Arkansas Children's Hospital. While donating his toys to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Eli Paladino got to visit with two unlikely guests — Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Morrilton sixth-grader shares his Christmas joy

Following his surgery, Eli Paladino wanted to help other patients

Published: January 16, 2024      
Nichole Paladino
Eli Paladino, a sixth grader in Morrilton, raised $2,000 for his Christmas toy drive. After purchasing the toys himself, he delivered them with his mother, Nichole Paladino, to Arkansas Children's Hospital.

When most children have a serious medical diagnosis, fear and anxiety often force them to make it a distant memory. But for Eli Paladino, it motivated him to help others. 

Paladino, a sixth grader at Sacred Heart School in Morrilton, was born with a congenital heart defect.

“They did a temporary fix when he was three days old,” said Nichole Paladino, Eli’s mother. “We’ve been watching it over the years, and on Dec. 20, 2022, he had to have an artificial valve placed.”

While the 12-year-old was in Arkansas Children’s Hospital, anxious about the upcoming procedure as other children were preparing for Christmas at home, he received a package of toys.

“They sent around this interest survey for the kids, and we thought another child might need it more, but little did we know, he really needed it mentally,” Nichole said. “He had a really, really bad night, and we had to extend our stay. It just so happened that we ended up getting this bag of toys, and it definitely touched him and left a lasting impression.”

Eli clambered out of bed to play games and try out his new toys with the staff. But the package of toys would become something much bigger.

“The day he got the toys, he told the employee who delivered them that he wanted his job when he got older, because he got to make all of the kids happy,” Nichole said. “He never let it go from that day on.”

Eli left the hospital on Christmas Eve and told his mother he wanted to start a fundraiser to help other children at ACH during the holiday season. 

“Initially I thought, ‘OK, we’ll see what he says in a year, because time passes and life moves on.’ But he didn’t forget. He came to me a few months later and asked about making a flyer to send out,” Nichole said. “I wondered if he was really committed to this. And he was. He’s brought it up all throughout the year, but he got really serious about it in October. … Once we decided to do it, and once I knew he wanted to do it, as a mom, my passion was to make it the best it could be.”

Nichole helped Eli create and send a flier to family and friends, informing them about his toy drive fundraiser. 

When asked why he wanted to organize a toy drive, Eli’s answer was simple.

“Because the kids in the hospital are hurting or sad, and I wanted to do this to make the kids in the hospital happy,” Eli said. “My toys made me feel happy, and I had more Christmas spirit. It made me forget about all the pain.”

“He wanted to do as much as he could and wanted to be as hands on as he could,” Nichole said. “Since he couldn’t actually hand out toys in the rooms, he wanted to handpick out toys, so we did a money collection, like a ‘donate what you would spend on toys.’ That way he could go shopping and pick it out.”

Eli set a goal of $300 for his toy drive. But soon, he had received $2,000 from family and friends in the community to help his cause. Eli went shopping on Black Friday to get the best deals and to pick out gifts. 

“He purposely went and bought some of the same toys he got because he remembered how happy they made him, and how much he enjoyed them,” Nichole said. “I’d come across a toy here and there and think, ‘I’m going to pick these up,’ and I’d put them back, because this is his thing. He did everything and would not even let me order online. He wanted to do it. He even did the self-checkout at Walmart by himself.”

As Christmas drew near, Eli went to Arkansas Children’s Hospital to drop off his donations. 

“He was so worried about leaving,” Nichole said. “He was so worried about, ‘If I only bought two of these, what if somebody else wants one and doesn’t get it?’ We tried explaining to him that he wasn’t the only donor.”

Eli’s worries were soon assuaged by two unexpected guests — Santa and Mrs. Claus. 

“Santa and Mrs. Claus and staff members took Eli into the room where all of the toys were, and he was amazed at how many toys were collected,” Nichole said.

A mug of hot chocolate with the visitors from the North Pole helped the rest of Eli’s worries subside. After dropping everything off, Eli shared with his mother how good he felt. She agreed.

“It’s such a humbling experience, because not only are you giving it forward, but it’s nice to have that reminder of how supported and loved you are,” Nichole said. “We have a very large family, and our friends and family are very committed to whatever we’re committed to. … Everyone was very eager to help in every way.”

Father Joseph Friend, former associate pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Morrilton, and Msgr. Jack Harris, associate pastor of Sacred Heart Church, were another part of the community that helped Eli through his health concerns. 

“(The medical process) took us about six months because of the pandemic and testing and shortages and making the valve,” Nichole said. “When he found out he was going to have surgery, he was pulled from sports, which have always been his livelihood. It not only affected him physically, but mentally. Father Joe and Father Harris were amazing. … Being part of the school, they would pull Eli aside and talk to him. They definitely helped in that anxious period of waiting.” 

Eli is already preparing for a bigger fundraiser for Christmas 2024. For Nichole, the fundraiser has been a gift to her faith and her role as a mother.

“It’s one of the biggest rewards as a parent,” Nichole said. “I’ve always said that it’s not the letter you make on your report card, it’s the effort you put in. It’s the comments about your behavior and respect. As a parent, you don’t get that affirmation until you start seeing these acts of kindness. That’s when you get to sit back as a parent and say, ‘We did something right.’”

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