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Chicago-area teen starts charity from childhood passion

June 07, 2013|By Riley Blevins @Riley_Blevins | RedEye

Ever since John Makowiec strolled into a local hobby shop at 5 years old, he was hooked. He loved to collect sports cards.

Baseball, football, basketball or hockey--it didn’t matter. He longed for the feeling of thumbing through a freshly opened pack, and he wanted to share that joy with others.

So 10 years later, as a freshman at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Makowiec started Cards2Kids, a non-profit charity that delivers sports cards to needy or bed-ridden children.

“I just wanted to do something to give back,” Makowiec said.

As a freshman, Makowiec was in a service club at school. The then-14-year-old thoroughly enjoyed his work with the club, helping local soup kitchens and hosting food drives. But he wanted to do something more personalized.

Naturally, sports cards were the first thing to come to mind.

About halfway through the year, Makowiec approached his good friend Ryan Lissner at lunch.

“John goes, ‘Hey, I have this idea for a charity.’ And I was like, ‘Oh OK, sweet,’” Lissner, 17, recalls. “He’s like my best friend, so I was like of course I’ll help out with that, no problem. But the more I heard and the more I thought about, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a great idea.’ I thought it could go really far and get really big.”

And two and a half years later, it has.

“I thought this would only turn into a Chicago-area thing,” Makowiec said. “It’s been a lot more successful than I really initially thought.”

After starting with just a small collection box inside the Winnetka-based hobby shop Bleachers Sports, Cards2Kids has now hauled in and distributed more than a million cards to nearly 20 charities in Illinois, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Wisconsin, Toronto and more.

Locally, Cards2Kids has distributed packs at the Ronald McDonald House, the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago and Gilda’s Clubs of Chicago, to name a few.

The charity has received sponsorship from Upper Deck and Hall of Fame cards, as well as partnering with organizations such as the Cubs, Cleveland Cavaliers and the NHL. The NHL even produced a video in support of Cards2Kids.

“It’s all been really great,” Makowiec said. “It was so much fun in the beginning and I’m still having fun with it today. Seeing the kids light up when you hand them a pack, it really puts a smile on your face.”

But don’t be fooled, Cards2Kids isn’t just fun and games. A lot of old-fashioned elbow grease goes into making a smile-eliciting pack.

At first, the only source for cards was that small cardboard box stationed at the local hobby shop. That’s not the case anymore.

“I was worried we wouldn’t be able to collect enough cards,” Makowiec said. “But I found out pretty fast that there are a ton of people looking to get rid of their old cards.”

Today, Makowiec receives mailed packages filled with thousands of cards. What was once a small, family- and friend-run operation to put the cards into packs has turned into packing events held a few times each month.

Cards2Kids packs started as 15 cards, but have since grown to 20.

When Makowiec and Lissner receive cards, they’re immediately sorted into different boxes, organized by sport and a separate box for “big-time” cards.

Lissner, who is a Cards2Kids ambassador, said that five to six “big-time” cards (consisting of all-star players and hall-of-famers) go into every pack.

All cards sent to Cards2Kids go into the packs, no matter how valuable. From an autographed Deion Sanders card to a hall-of-famer rookie card--it doesn’t matter.

“It’s a lot of work, but I’ve learned so much,” said Lissner, a junior in the midst of finals week. “There are so many kids that don’t have a lot. Sure, it’s a lot of time, but it’s so worth it.”

All the time and hard work came to fruition for Lissner in December. He still remembers the moment vividly.

The charity went to the Ronald McDonald House in Chicago. While handing out packs, one wide-eyed boy approached him.

The child asked if he had a Sammy Sosa card, calling the ex-Cub great “his hero.”

Lissner and crew shifted through countless cards. No luck.

“He was so devastated,” Lissner said.

But when Lissner returned home, he found that his brother, Ben, had a Sosa card--one that had a piece of his jersey weaved into the cardboard.

Lissner and Cards2kids returned that summer. He handed the boy the card.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Lissner said. “He went crazy. It was so cool to watch. When you see a kid light up like that, you just want to keep on doing it and keep on helping out.”

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