From the time he was four months old, when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, until his death at age 4, Oscar Litwak spent much of his time at the hospital.
Even though he was seriously ill, his mom Sharon said her family’s fondest memories are of seeing how happy Oscar was when he was doing the simple thing most children enjoy.
“We were thinking, where was he happy? He was in treatment his whole life. But what we remembered most was that he was really happy when he was playing,” says Sharon Litwak, 43.
After Oscar passed away in 2003, his parents, who live near Los Angeles, created the Oscar Litwak Foundation” to honor his short life. Their mission is to ensure that other children who are hospitalized with serious issues have access to fun and creative materials to brighten their days while being treated.
Using colorfully painted and customized crash carts, the kind that are wheeled in during a medial emergency, the family stocks them with materials that serve as a distraction — books, cards, board games, Play-Doh and coloring books, among other items. The carts are made so one person can push them around and so they fit through doors in every room, making them convenient and portable.
“It’s a very simple concept — we wanted to bring some joy to these hospitalized patients,” Sharon Litwak, tells PEOPLE. “Nurses and volunteers can bring the carts to kids in their rooms if they are too sick to use a pediatric playroom.”
The play stations, which cost about $2,000 to stock, are available in 90 hospitals nationwide. And the non-profit continues to grow with the support of local community fundraisers held to support the Litwak family’s cause.
Oscar’s siblings Jessica, Andrea and Ilana, along with dad Roberto, take their involvement seriously, assembling the toy packages for each cart themselves at a warehouse near their Tarzana, California home.
“It just feels really good to see other kids smile,” Sharon Litwak says of the carts. The hospital “is such a scary place to be. You just bring in a little bit of play and they feel normal. We see kids who are so sad in the hospital and when we come and give them toys, they just light up.”
Mother Rebecca Waldman saw first hand how the cart helped to distract her 9-year-old son when he went to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles for a doctor’s check-up. As they sat in the waiting room, with other children, she watched as small eyes lit up when a volunteer rolled up with a cart. Her son quickly grabbed a Connect 4 game.
“Kids are frightened to be going into these types of environments, for treatment. I think when they see these happy, colorful carts wheeled in and someone says ‘Hey, let’s play!’ that keeps their minds off of what is going on,” Waldman tells PEOPLE.
“I’m sure for some of these very sick children, they don’t have a lot of play time. So this represents a great opportunity to be occupied,” she says. “And I think it’s such a wonderful gesture to bring joy into these kids’ lives.”
Belinda Hammond, a Santa Barbara, California-based certified child life specialist, says play offers great meaning, especially in a medical setting. Often children are in traction or in isolation, for example, depending on their illnesses. Bringing the play room to them “gives them control, which is essential to their recovery,” she says.
Hammond said that many children’s hospitals do not have resources to fund full-on playrooms, so having a mobile play station offers them flexibility. The carts can be offered to children visiting for day surgeries, in the emergency room, or to those hospitalized longterm.
“Play is the language of children — it is how they learn and how they cope, so introducing play to a child in unfamiliar environments can provide instant comfort to a child needing that sense of normal,” Hammond tells PEOPLE. “It gives them tools to express their feelings and understanding of what’s happening to and around them when they don’t have the words to express those same things.
“Children communicate through play,” she says. “When they don’t have words, they play out their fears, their concerns, their questions … so giving a child the opportunity to play through procedures allows them to express questions without directly asking. It also allows them to gain mastery and control over situations they otherwise fear because of the unknown.”
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine.