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The Boredom Busters

Boys collect toys for hospitalized children.

A box of toys given to his little brother when he was in the hospital has spurred a Chantilly teen-ager to collect toys for other hospitalized children.

His brother, Michael McCauley, now 10, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, last February, and had just returned to bed after having a spinal tap. Next thing he knew, someone handed him a Rubbermaid shoebox filled with games and toys.

"He was to lie in bed for the next six hours, [so] his face lit up when we opened the box and there were crayons, small toys and games inside for him to play with," said big brother Matt, 17. "It really helped to distract him while he was in the hospital."

NOW A JUNIOR at Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology, Matt was so impressed that he decided to do a community-service project, this year, based on that idea. He then organized a drive to donate 100 similar boxes filled with games and toys for children at Johns Hopkins and Inova Fairfax hospitals, since Michael goes to both places for medical care.

He's spent the past three months writing letters to companies, plus getting donations of toys from friends and relatives. The Container Store contributed 100 clear shoeboxes, and the Washington Wizards donated decks of cards, baseball caps and bobblehead dolls.

Called "Boredom Busters," the project's proved so popular that, last Monday, Jan. 12, the McCauleys delivered the first batch of 60 goodie-filled boxes to Inova Fairfax Hospital's Pediatric Oncology Ward.

And now, they plan to collect toys and games to fill up 40 more shoeboxes for that hospital, plus another 100 for patients at Johns Hopkins, Inova Fair Oaks and Children's Hospital. Toward this end, they're hoping for some help from the local community.

Starbucks Coffee in the Franklin Farm Shopping Center has agreed to place a box in its store so people may drop off shoebox items there. Especially needed are small, travel-sized games — such as Boggle and Yahtzee — that fit inside a shoebox, as well as things such as baseball and basketball cards, costume jewelry, Barbie dolls and toy makeup kits.

"We also could really use baseball caps that children can wear after surgery and chemotherapy," added Matt and Michael's mom, Marcie McCauley. "GMU donated some, but more are needed."

THE MCCAULEYS — which include dad John and sister Jessica, 13, a seventh-grader at Franklin Middle School — live in Chantilly's Saville Chase community. Matt is a fifth-grader at Lees Corner Elementary. All was well until last February, when the family was about to return home from vacation.

"In the airport, Michael said he felt funny and couldn't remember words," said his mother. "So when we got back, we took him to a pediatrician who did a neurological test and recommended an MRI. It showed a lesion on his brain, so we went to a neurosurgeon for more brain scans, tests and a spinal tap. They also treated Michael with steroids."

But it wasn't until six months later, August 2003, at Johns Hopkins, when they discovered the brain tumor. It's called a ganglioglioma and, said Marcie McCauley, it accounts for only 1 percent of all brain tumors.

"They think he probably had it, his whole life, and it grew as he grew," she said. "But he never had seizures until February 2003. They're mild, but his stomach gets upset, his language is disrupted and he zones out for 10-15 seconds. It's a rare tumor on the left, temporal lobe of the speech center and, if taken out, it could permanently disrupt his speech."

Last year, Michael missed 54 days of school because he didn't feel well — the medication he takes for the seizures makes him sick — and he was in and out of hospitals. But, said McCauley, "He's a straight-A student and made up all the work he missed. He's very bright." And when he's feeling OK, he plays CYA basketball and baseball.

SHE'S ALSO grateful for the community support the family's received during Michael's illness. "People brought us dinner and helped take care of our family while we went back and forth to the hospital," she said.

An MRI in November showed the tumor hadn't changed shape or size and was still benign. In November, Michael began a new medication, but continued having one or two seizures a day. And a seizure on Christmas, said McCauley, pretty much "ruined his day," just as he was beginning to open his presents.

He was also devastated when his good friend, Sasha Burakow, 19, of Fairfax Station, died of a brain aneurysm on Dec. 17. She was a freshman at Duke University, but had attended T.J. with Matt, and both he and her boyfriend played basketball there.

She and Michael would sit together during the games, and she also visited him in the hospital. Now, to honor her memory, the McCauleys are dedicating their "Boredom Busters" shoeboxes project to her.

Doctors tried adjusting Michael's medicine in early January to try to eliminate his seizures. But in the middle of the month, they increased to about three a day. "When he has [them], they only last a short time," said his mother. "But they can affect him for hours afterward."

He's scheduled for another MRI on Feb. 19. He'll then have follow-up appointments with a neurosurgeon and a neurologist. The McCauleys also set up a Web site to update people about him. It's caringbridge.com/va/michael.

Meanwhile, Jessica is helping brother Matt with "Bordom Busters." They, along with Michael and his friend Brandon Golden, a Franklin Middle eighth-grader, help assemble the toys and games in the shoeboxes in preparation for delivery.

"It's great," said McCauley. "I'm proud of Matt. And it's a way for Michael to help other children because [the shoebox he received] made a big impact on him. And the toys and games keep kids in the hospital occupied between tests and operations."

ANYONE INTERESTED in donating items may bring them to the Franklin Farms Starbucks or mail them to the McCauleys at 13700 Rosetree Court, Chantilly, VA. 20151. Or contact the family at threesenof@aol.com.

In her Jan. 4 Web site update, McCauley pretty much summed up life as it is, for now, for her family. "Some days are good, some are great and some ... well, some are long," she wrote. "But we'll keep on keeping on. Michael's a wonderful child, and we're blessed to have three great kids."