La Jollans give children with life-threatening illnesses a reason to smile


To contribute:

■ Contact Jim Broutzos at (619) 997-9059

By Pat Sherman

For the past six months La Jolla building contractor Jim Broutzos has been playing the role of “papa” — a term of endearment given him by a volunteer at Rady Children’s Hospital, to whom he delivers armfuls of plush toys each week.

The toys are given to children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases whose families may not be able to afford such comforts while struggling to pay medical bills.

“I thought to myself, people always do this around the holidays and then they forget about it,” Broutzos said of his campaign, which he calls “Build a Smile.”

Broutzos’ neighbor, La Jollan Bill Bennett, joined the effort two months ago, and the two of them now deliver the toys together every Sunday.

“Good feelings, that’s what I get out of it,” said Bennett, who owns Pet Kingdom on Sports Arena Boulevard. “We get an extra day of life added onto to our lifespan for every Sunday we do this,” he said, noting a standing joke the duo has with admissions desk volunteer Millie Madrigal, whom they refer to as “grandma.” (Bennett’s nickname is “grandpa”.)

Madrigal gives the toys to a supervisor, who delivers them based on need and appropriateness. She said the gifts are always well received and make the children “very, very happy.”

Though Broutzos and Bennett never meet the children who receive their tokens of goodwill, they see the concern and anguish in the faces of parents and loved ones lingering in the lobby. Broutzos said witnessing his best friend’s 3-year-old daughter battle life-threatening cancer at Children’s Hospital in the early 1990s inspired him. Though she survived chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and other procedures — after being given a 20 percent chance for survival — other families are not so fortunate.

“I was visiting her a couple times a week,” Broutzos said. “I saw children walking around with bald heads pulling machines around behind them. I was just kind of flabbergasted to even see this. I didn’t even know kids got that sick. It just hits you every time you go in there.”

Broutzos began delivering the toys after one of his clients handed him a large, plush orca whale they won at SeaWorld, the day before Christmas. Broutzos remembered his experience bringing toys to his friend’s daughter. “She just lit up,” he recalled.

Bennett buys toys and stuffed animals in bulk when they go on sale, typically after holidays such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day or Easter. He is hoping to expand his campaign and is looking for donations from others.

“I’ve got jobs all over the county,” he said. “I will go pick up the toys. Whatever is easiest for people to get those toys down there, I’ll do it.”

Bennett said he enjoys knowing he is doing something good for others. He said it also gets him out of honey-do projects on Sundays.

“You know, when your wife or honey says, ‘Honey, do this,’” he quipped. “I’m able to escape from doing yard work.”