The last place Derek Tobias wanted to be was in a hospital bed.
There were so many better things he could be doing. Soccer practice, for one. (There are only a few days left in the season, you know.) Finding a Halloween costume. Or preparing for his birthday party in two weeks, where Derek will celebrate turning 7 among his friends, all of them dressed as pirates.
But Derek, a first-grader at Leesburg's Catoctin Elementary, became severely run-down and dehydrated early this week. He was admitted to Inova Loudoun Hospital so that doctors could figure out what was wrong. After a day of lying in bed, doing nothing had become plain boring for Derek. Even TV had lost its appeal.
"He's been so miserable," said his mother, Nicole Tobias.
Then on Tuesday morning, Derek had visitors, people he had never met or even seen before. They held out Legos, a T-shirt and a paint set and said these were presents for him. How could he reply but with a shy thank you?
As the visitors left, Derek immediately set to work with the Legos, pulling aside just the blue ones. The night before, his father, Mike, had read him "Saint George and the Dragon," and now Derek was going to build a castle.
The gifts, and the visitors, were from Cole's Closet, which provides new toys to hospitalized children and their siblings.
On Tuesday, Inova Loudoun became the fifth hospital to receive donations from Cole's Closet.
"This can be a very frightening space for children, being seen by strangers, all the needle sticks. A toy really conveys something that you can't. And you can see the children respond," said Sheree O'Neil, a nurse in the pediatric unit who coordinated the hospital's involvement with Cole's Closet.
"I think it's a great concept," O'Neil said. The toys "really help the kids pass the time."
And the hospital had a need: New guidelines require that a toy goes home with the patient who has played with it, to prevent the possibility for cross-infection. And donations tend to arrive only at Christmastime.
The Springfield charity brought in 400 toys on Tuesday, requiring a bucket brigade of volunteers to carry everything to the second floor and the 11-bed pediatric unit.
Taking part in the parade up the steps were Steve and Ellen Tomczyk, who founded Cole's Closet. Ellen Tomczyk, with the couple's young children, Taylor and Drew, then called on the child patients in the unit. After Tomczyk offered a Candyland game and a family of stuffed bears to 2-year-old Amara Petretta, the little girl leaned over to give her visitor a big hug.
"Ooh, that's so nice," Tomczyk said, adding a moment later with a laugh, "She doesn't want to let go, and neither do I."
The program is named in honor of the Tomczyks' 6-month-old son, Cole, who died in 1999 from an ailment that doctors were never able to diagnose.
The charity was started almost by accident, said Ellen Tomczyk: The family held a get-together a year after Cole's death and asked guests to bring toys to donate to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church. To their surprise, they collected about 400 items.
"I think the Lord was pointing us in a direction," Tomczyk said recently.
The Tomczyks opened their first toy closet at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children in 2000 and have since opened others at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax, at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington and at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville. They have donated about 12,000 toys -- including CD players and PlayStation video game systems for pediatric wards -- by raising money through yard sales, silent auctions and dinners.
The toys typically are reserved for chronically or critically ill children, but that practice was relaxed Tuesday. "Today's a special day," noted O'Neil, the nurse.
Cole's Closet has grown far beyond playthings. It has pledged $10,000 toward the renovation of Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children and has launched an outreach program for the families of children hospitalized for long stretches, providing them with such items as phone cards, gift cards for Starbucks stores and for gasoline and greeting cards bearing messages of support from the Tomczyks.
The organization has been a "huge healing path for us," Ellen Tomczyk has said. "People say what a wonderful thing we're doing, and we say, 'No, you don't know what a help this is to us.' "