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Brother and sister duo praised for SickKids charity work over 15 years: ‘They are such special kids.’


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Brother and sister duo praised for SickKids charity work over 15 years: ‘They are such special kids.’

Zachary and Maya Winkler’s 15 years of organizing charity events supporting SickKids Foundation came to a triumphant end Sunday, when the philanthropic brother and sister duo raised more than $10,000, bringing their total donation towards children’s health and medical research to over $161,000.

More than 150 people gathered in the Winklers’, and five of their neighbours’ driveways, in Thornhill on Sunday afternoon to enjoy the family’s last “Do Something Sweet” event. Activities included face painting, inflatable games, balloon animals, a photo booth and silent auction featuring a hat signed by basketball legend Kobe Bryant.

“It’s very emotional,” said Maya, speaking to the Star a few hours before the start of the event. Family and friends have encouraged her and Zachary — known to loved ones as Zac — to continue hosting fundraisers for the hospital, she added. “It brings the community together. It’s something that everyone looks forward to every single year … it’s sad that this is the last one.”

With Zac having left Toronto to join the Israeli Defense Forces, and Maya contemplating next steps after graduating high-school, the event will be the last of its kind, she said. Maya is preparing to start her post-secondary institutions, but is also considering a gap year to join her brother in Israel.

“We’re very close,” she said.

Zac — now 20 years old — was just six when he decided to begin organizing fundraisers in support of the Hospital for SickKids. Maya, only three years old at the time, was being treated at a different hospital for Kawasaki disease. The illness causes inflammation of blood vessels, and is the most common cause of acquired heart disease in children from the industrialized world. Like some other kids diagnosed with the sickness, Maya experienced rashes on her body, she said.

Zac and his mom had also read a story in the newspaper about a boy hospitalized at SickKids with a brain tumour.

“That’s when my brother really wanted to start helping these kids,” Maya said.

Remembering the cotton candy machine his dad Richard owns, Zac suggested the family hand out cones of home-made fairy floss, in exchange for donations for SickKids Hospital.

“He wanted to make a difference,” said Richard, owner of Happy Days, a balloon decor, centrepiece and “fun food” company in the Greater Toronto Area.

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“They are such special kids.”

Although she was very young at the time, Maya, now 17, remembers participating in some of the first annual fundraisers, when it was just family and friends supporting the cause.

“I was in charge of giving out the SickKids stickers while my brother handed out the cotton candy,” she said. “That’s how it all started. Now, 15 years later, it’s been growing and growing and growing.”

The money raised is used to support different efforts at SickKids. In 2018, donations went towards the hospital’s Teeny Tiny Hearts campaign for complex infant cardiac surgery. Another year, funds were earmarked for a Snoezelen room, or controlled multisensory environment, which is a therapy for people with autism and other developmental disabilities, as well as dementia or brain injury.

“We’ve actually gotten letters from children, thanking us, because we supported the hospital and helped so many kids,” Maya said.

As of Sunday at 5:30 p.m., shortly after the end of the in-person event, the Winkler’s had raised $10,740 in online donations, beating their $10,000 goal. Typically, around 250 people show up to the two hour event.

Katie McHugh-Escobar, the director of community partnerships at SickKids Foundation, said Zac and Maya have set an inspirational example for other kids to learn about philanthropy.

“We are so grateful to the entire Winkler family, but especially to Zac and Maya, for their tireless efforts over the past 15 years,” McHugh-Escobar said. “Their fun-filled and creative community fundraising activities, involving their family, friends and neighbours, get right to the heart of what SickKids Foundation is all about.”

Zac has won several awards, including the Our Kids Believe in SickKids Award in 2014 and UJA Teen Philanthropy award in 2015.

Torstar, the Star’s parent company, is involved in a fundraising and educational partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children. Jordan Bitove, publisher and co-proprietor of the Toronto Star, is a member of the SickKids Foundation board of directors.

Maria Sarrouh is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]

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