The mystery packages started showing up in August of 2012.
The Full family just had their fourth child and found themselves driving their 6-year-old from Wheaton to Chicago to learn about things they never thought they'd have to, like medulloblastoma and proton therapy.
The first, a gift card for Oberweis ice cream, arrived in an envelope. The card wished the family well during a challenging time and was signed “Dylan's Secret Pal.”
Dylan's mother, Laurie Full, thought it was a nice gesture, one among many thoughtful gifts and food that had been delivered by family and friends since the boy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor.
But it didn't end there.
Over 14 months, Dylan's secret pal sent more than a dozen packages for the boy and, often, for his three siblings and parents. They frequently appeared after Dylan's “really bad days” and tough chemotherapy treatments, Laurie Full said.
Packages would show up outside the front door, sometimes arriving when the family was at home, but never with any trace of the source's identity, other than the signature “Dylan's Secret Pal.”
“I always tell people it's like the sun on a dark day,” Laurie Full said.
The mystery giver also sent holiday gifts. There was a haunted house cookie kit on Halloween and Santa brought Christmas presents for Dylan and his siblings, Kaylee, 9, Emma, 5, and Branson, 1. There were gifts for the parents, Laurie and Chris Full, too.
On Mother's Day, a card cheered on Laurie Full and commended her strength during the difficult time.
One summer month, the family received a snow cone machine, which the kids all agreed was their favorite. A winter package brought blankets and hot chocolate. To usher in spring, Dylan received a bag of jump ropes, sidewalk chalk, and all the tools needed for a sandbox.
Laurie Full still doesn't know who was behind the effort. It could have been the work of one thoughtful friend, maybe an effort by generous neighbors, or even a stranger who followed Dylan's story online through her blog.
“It was a constant source of happiness. This person, whoever it is, probably has no idea the joy that they brought to Dylan and our entire family during a really dark and challenging time,” she said.
Heidi Thomalla, a certified child life specialist who worked with Dylan during his treatment at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, said she has witnessed many random acts of kindness during her nearly decade on the job, but it was the first time she had heard of a “Secret Santa” type of gesture.
The anonymity likely appealed to Dylan's curious nature, she said. In contrast to the unknowns of his cancer treatment, this offered a much more light-hearted and positive mystery.
“It helps normalize the experience for the child,” Thomalla said. “With everything else going on, with the treatment and side effects, the play with these materials offer a diversion and distraction as he's processing through his thoughts, emotions and fears.”
Stacey Slaughter, a family friend who Laurie Full once suspected was the mystery giver, believes the generosity helped teach her own children about helping those in need. But she maintains she was not behind it.
“We've had so many conversations about it. Laurie and I have even tried to figure out who it is and done a spy mission,” Slaughter said.
It may not matter if they ever find out who gave the presents, said Cari Gavin, another friend and neighbor.
“Whoever it is obviously didn't want the recognition and just wanted to give them love and comfort in a time when they really needed it,” she said. “I'm just glad that this gift could help them through one of the roughest times of their life. Dylan has fought like a champ and we are all in awe of him.”