Jessie Tenyani has no children of her own, but for each of the past eight years, she has put away thousands of dollars from her paycheck as a hospital cafeteria worker to buy toys for kids for Christmas.
Tenyani, 55, of Chicago, hand-picks the toys, as many as 1,000 each Christmas, and donates them to children who are forced to spend the holiday in the hospital.
Miss Jessie, as she is known by colleagues at Advocate Trinity Hospital, surprised patients today at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois, with nearly 1,000 toys.
"I feel great and I feel at peace because what I do is to put a smile on the face of a child who is going through so much, whatever the pain they might go through," Tenyani said today on "Good Morning America." "I try to calm that pain with whatever helps."
Tenyani, who has worked at Advocate Trinity for almost 15 years, said she was inspired to spend her own money by seeing children at the hospital and on TV who were struggling and in need of help. She takes advantage of her credit union’s “Christmas Club” that deducts money automatically from her paycheck every month and releases it in October for Christmas shopping.
“God put in my heart that I should do something for the children, so what came up was I decided to buy toys,” Tenyani told ABC News.
'It's Like I Want to Grab the Whole Store'
Tenyani takes Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday off from work and spends the entirety of both days shopping so she can buy the most toys for her money.
Child life specialist Karen Connelly of Advocate Trinity Hospital said, "It’s not easy for patients and families to be in the hospital at Christmastime and just to know that somebody is thinking of them from our community is so heartwarming. We couldn’t be more blessed to have Jessie think of us every year."
Before purchasing the gifts, Tenyani rents a U-Haul van and drives it on her own to transport the toys from the stores to her home. Through the weeks before Christmas, the toys take up nearly every inch of her home.
“It’s like I want to grab the whole store when I look at the toys," she said. “I don’t have kids so I didn’t know [what kids would like] but now I know very well."
Of dealing with crowded stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, Tenyani said, “It’s fun and joyful because I’m doing it for a good reason.”
Tenyani's employer deploys a truck to her home to take the toys to Advocate Children’s Hospital. The hospital, located just outside of Chicago, is the largest network provider of pediatric services in Illinois and a major referral center for infants and children.
'You Have to Look Out for Others'
Tenyani not only surprises the young patients in the hospital’s patient waiting room but also delivers toys to the bedsides of children too sick to attend in person.
“The parents start crying and say, ‘You just made my day for my kid. I’m going through so much,’” Tenyani said of the emotional exchange. “They cry and grab me and I start crying.”
Tenyani said she starts thinking about next year and how to reach more kids as soon as the surprise gift-giving party is over. She plans to keep playing the role of Secret Santa for children for as long as she can.
"I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to serve these children," Tenyani said today on "Good Morning America." "As long as I live I’ll be continuing serving these children."
Tenyani’s hope is that others are inspired by her generous holiday act.
“You have to look out for others,” she said. “And whatever you have, the little you have, you can share. You make a difference to other people, you make a big difference.”
Surprise for Tenyani
Just moments after handing out presents today to patients at Advocate, Tenyani got a surprise herself.
Toys "R" Us donated $5,000 so Tenyani can keep buying presents for more children in need. "GMA" then presented Tenyani with a gift certificate for pampering at a local spa.
"I am so excited," Tenyani said. "Thank you so much. It’s wonderful."