Gracyn Smith is only 9 years old, but she understands the mindset of sick children arguably better than any adult.
That’s because the Boynton Beach, Florida, girl has spent much of her childhood in and out of hospitals with epilepsy. She knows the dreariness, the fear and the sadness of longterm illness. And it had an effect on her entire family. Her brother Zakary was only 4 when Gracyn was hospitalized with the neurological disorder, but he was deeply impacted by the bleakness faced by his sister and the other hospitalized children. Tight budgets and sparse donations at many hospitals left the children with few options to play.
“When she was in the playroom healing, most of the toys were broken. It was sad,” Zakary, now 11, tells PEOPLE. “My birthday was coming up and I donated most of my birthday presents to the hospital so the children could play with toys that weren’t all broken.”
After seeing how excited the other children in the hospital were to receive the toys, Zakary, Gracyn and their younger brother Ari, now 6, approached their parents about bringing in more donations to boost the moods of sick kids.
“I like to give them stuff animals,” Ari said of his favorite donation. “I know that toy makes them happy.”
The kids started modestly. They told school administrators about the need and each of them was soon presenting their mission to schoolmates, members of their local synagogue and various community organizations.
“Speaking to groups is really what got the organization growing,” says their mother, Tracy Smith, who was eight months pregnant with Ari when Gracyn underwent spine surgery for her condition.
Word of their efforts soon spread and toy donations skyrocketed. In 2011, Tracy and her husband Jarrett Smith founded the nonprofit organization Smith Smiles.
Now hospital staff sends them wish lists and they collect donations for many hospitals in their home state and beyond.
“It really comes in waves,” says Tracy, who is the organization’s main point person but credits her three children with the spirit and operation of the nonprofit. “We have had so many regular donations from camps, synagogues and other groups….And we always try to keep a small supply in stock in case there is an urgent need.”
In fact, the family keeps the toys in a dedicated room until they package them for shipping or deliver them to hospitals where staff has expressed an interest.
“Working with them has been such a joy. They will call ahead of time and find out if we have any specific needs,” says Lisa Barron, pediatric office supervisor, Palm Beach Children’s Hospital at St. Mary’s Medical Center, Florida.
“The very first time they came to make donations they were pointing out all of the toys to me, telling me what would be great for the different ages….And the patients are always so surprised the grateful to receive the gifts. The job of kids is to play. And Smith Smiles helps make that possible.”
Diane Esola of Boca Raton, Florida, knows that from experience. She recalls the stress her family underwent when her 14-year old son was hospitalized at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, Florida.
“One day, our nurse came in with Smith Smiles and explained what they do for the hospital,” she says. “They brought gifts like puzzles, airplane models, board games and just made my son so happy….I never experienced that in any hospital before.”
The donation meant so much to the family that they have contacted Smith Smiles about hosting their own toy drive to give back to Smith Smiles.
The Smith family was recently filmed at Cleveland Clinic, where Gracyn undergoes treatment, making donations to children as their teary-eyed families looked on.
Elia Pestana-Knight, M.D., Gracyn’s neurologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Epilepsy Center, said the donations inspire staff, too.
“Gracyn is a brave girl who has faced many medical challenges in her young life. It may seem unusual to see someone being so thoughtful and generous to help other children while battling their own serious illness. This is what makes Gracyn so special,” she tells PEOPLE. “It is wonderful to know that children like Gracyn and her brothers are supporting other children in need. She is inspiring to us as caregivers of children.”
Even when the Smith children can’t meet the kids or families to whom they donate, just mailing the boxes or dropping them off at hospitals brings them joy.
“Sometimes we are able to go to the hospital and make donations and sometimes we even with staff and patients at the hospitals,” says Tracy. “The one thing we want is to have some connections to the hospitals to which we donate.”
The family has recently made donations to hospitals in Florida that were most impacted by the recent storms. They hope to do more for other storm-ravaged areas.
“It makes me feel better just doing that,” says Gracyn, who admits she is sometimes nervous when speaking to groups about Smith Smiles. “I know young kids don’t know what’s going on in the hospital. I think giving [a child a] toy distracts them and makes them feel better. Even though I have a wheelchair and braces, Smith Smiles has helped me make something good out of it.”