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Mom fulfills son's wish by helping other kids

Sun Reporter

For a short time yesterday, Johns Hopkins Children's Center patient Bradley Shipley got to be just another toddler in a toy store, albeit one set up in a hospital conference room for young patients like him.

"I got a puppy," Bradley, 3, said through the green surgical mask that protected his nose and mouth, holding up the white Lil' Snoopy he selected from a room bursting with about 500 toys.

The scene was much like Michele Voigt had envisioned. Her son, R.J. Voigt, died of cancer in this hospital in 2003. He was 12, and The Sun told his story in a series about children at the end of life. During R.J.'s last months, he requested stuffed toys instead of flowers at his funeral.

He asked that the toys be given to sick children. His request inspired the annual drive.

For the second year in a row, his mother and others commemorated his birthday, March 6, by bringing stuffed animals, games and many other donated toys to seriously ill children.

Yesterday, thanks to an outpouring of support from Eastern Shore residents and businesses, the haul was much larger than last year's couple hundred toys, which went only to patients on the eighth-floor pediatric oncology wing where R.J. was treated.

Nearly 1,000 items were collected, with half donated earlier in the day to children at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

The effort, which Voigt began last spring, about 10 days before R.J.'s birthday, gained momentum when Crisfield resident Barb Gregory heard Voigt talk about it with local disc jockey Mike Thomas on radio station WWFG "Froggy 99." The women had never met, but Gregory called to offer her Pocomoke flea market stall as a drop-off point for toys.

This year, Gregory and Voigt started earlier. With the help of others, they solicited businesses, notified those on a Pocomoke Chamber of Commerce list, and got stories in local media outlets. Donations came from organizations as diverse as Wal-Mart, Girl Scout Troop 1459 and the Salisbury Baptist Temple, where volunteers sorted toys Saturday.

Yesterday, Voigt, her daughter Kimberly, 16, niece Taylor, 5, and Kimberly's friends Travis Lodge and Becca Greenfield were joined by people such as credit bureau employee Jennifer Todd of Laurel, Del., and nursery school teacher Missy Ayers of Federalsburg. Neither had met Voigt until they heard about the cause.

They were part of a toy-packed, five-vehicle caravan. (R.J.'s grandmother, Carol Wisnom, who helped raise him, stayed home because of health problems. Voigt's nephew, Allen, stayed home as well.)

The result was that toy store "clerks" and toys far outnumbered shoppers at Hopkins, where the pediatric oncology ward had only seven patients. Voigt said the toys Hopkins and the University of Maryland can't store or use will go to young Eastern Shore patients.

The overstock meant that Bradley Shipley - pulled through the conference room toy store in a wagon by his mother, Nicole - had his pick of puppies. Bradley has a rare autoimmune disease and is undergoing chemotherapy far from his Brookings, Ore., home in hopes that it will shut down his immune system and allow it to rebuild disease-free.

Yesterday, Voigt also stopped by a towering statue of Jesus at Hopkins that she often visited while R.J. was asleep in the hospital. She hugged Taylor, touched the statue's foot and prayed.

Then she left R.J. a message.

"Happy Birthday, R.J.," she wrote in a guest book nearby. "Love Mommy, Kimberly, Allen, Taylor, grandmother." Then she added, "And friends."

juliana.bell@baltsun.com

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