When Mark Stankoski, 56, died in July after a 16 month battle with lung cancer, his family wanted to honor his life.
They knew that the West Hartford resident’s favorite thing was his family, particularly his three grandchildren.
There’s four-year-old Logan Rose, three-year-old Everly Giliberto and two-year-old Brody Rose. And his two daughters, Erica Rose and Nicole Giliberto, both have another child on the way.
Stankoski made frequent trips to the toy store with all three of them. Buying them the toys they wanted kept him happy while he was sick.
“It made my husband happy,” said Penny Stankoski. “He was battling cancer. When he first found out he had lung cancer he said he had to get these kids everything that they’ve ever dreamed of.”
“He was making up for all the years he would miss with them,” Rose said. “He said he wasn’t going to be able to buy them presents for all their birthdays and for Christmas.”
In this spirit, the family asked this past summer that people donate to a fund that would help them buy toys for the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. They collected about $2,500, bought what the medical center needed, and donated it all as a family on Tuesday.
The grandchildren did their part in delivering the toys. Logan, dressed as Santa, Everly, dressed as an elf, and Brody, dressed as a reindeer, were in a festive spirit as they assisted their moms and grandmother drop off the toys they helped purchase in honor of their grandfather.
The toy donation was a fitting way to honor the life of a man who was passionate about working with young people. He helped troubled teens through the Capitol Region Education Council and coached softball in West Hartford for around 15 years.
When his grandchildren were born, Stankoski even used his birthday as a way to buy them more gifts.
“For their birthday, he would say, I want to take the kids and let them pick out a present,” his wife said. “This year, I promised him I would take the kids and let them each buy a gift on his birthday. He didn’t want presents. He wanted the kids to buy themselves presents.”
That’s exactly what they did on Nov. 13, what would have been Stankoski’s 57th birthday. They’re planning on making that a yearly tradition, at his request.
Penny Stankoski said the act of collecting donations, and buying the toys, was cathartic as they continue to go through the grieving process.
“We didn’t expect it to be as much money as it was,” Stankoski said. “It’s been very hard. It’s brought a smile to all of us. It brought our grief into a project that we could all work together on and know that there’s going to be good out of it.”
The most important part, though, is trying to keep the memory of Stankoski alive to his young grandchildren. They affectionately call him “Poppy” and were excited to help buy the toys.
“They all saw him sick and it became a way of life for them,” Penny Stankoski said. “We’re helping to keep his memory alive.”
“They’ve been pretending Poppy bought the toys,” Giliberto said.
Even when they went out to choose their toys on their grandfather’s birthday, they were saying “Poppy bought this.”
Hearing that is important for the family. The most difficult thing Stankoski had to deal with, his wife said Tuesday, was knowing he wasn’t going to see his grandchildren grow up. And he worried too about them forgetting him, she said while delivering gifts at Connecticut Children’s.
But while holding Brody, the youngest of the three grandchildren, Penny Stankoski said she wasn't going to let that happen.
“The hardest thing for my husband was not being able to see these guys grow,” she said. “He loved being with them. He loved to see the smile on their faces. When he got sick, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to always experience that.”
They’re hoping to make this toy donation a yearly tradition as a way to keep Poppy and his frequent toy store trips a fresh thought in all of their minds.
“They talk about him all the time,” Penny Stankoski said. “And that’s the point. We want them to remember him.”