For Virginia family, young son’s cancer diagnosis spurs ‘Boredom Busters’ legacy

For a young child diagnosed with cancer, a lengthy stay in the hospital is often the key to saving their life. A Northern Virginia mother who lost her son to cancer in 2020 is continuing his legacy to help other young children.

“When my son was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004, he was in the hospital and having a spinal tap, and they brought in a little bag of toys to distract him,” Marcie McCauley of Chantilly told WTOP, recalling her son Michael’s stay at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

A social worker brought in a shoe box with some games, a toothbrush and a baseball hat to help distract the 10-year-old.

“We were told this was the last one they had in the hospital,” said McCauley, as the program was being discontinued.

Michael, his siblings, and his parents set out to replicate the program for other children.

“Michael’s motto was ‘the purpose of life is to help others through it,'” said Marcie. “He was a very kind, philanthropic kid, from a young age.”

Michael McCauley, 26, at the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore, Maryland, before his bone marrow transplant. (Courtesy Marcie McCauley)
Michael McCauley at age 11 with his mom, Marcie, pose in front of a car filled with early Boredom Busters to donate to Ronald McDonald House in Virginia. (Courtesy Marcie McCauley)
A child surrounded by Boredom Busters. (Courtesy Marcie McCauley)
A young boy poses with his hands full of goodies from Boredom Busters. (Courtesy Marcie McCauley)

At the age of 11, Michael and his mother were loading the family station wagon with plastic boxes, loaded with things to occupy a young child — and their parents — during a lengthy hospital stay.

“We started out paying for it with our own money,” Marcie said.

They called the boxes Boredom Busters.

“We watched Michael battle his brain tumor, he had lots of surgeries,” said his mother. “He did great, went off to college — he went to Penn State.”

Michael was enjoying the life of a healthy young man who had survived a brain tumor.

“He had a serious girlfriend, a good job, and then, all of a sudden he started a cough,” Marcie said. “We took him to doctor after doctor, and they told us it was allergies or reflux.”

Yet, Michael’s cough continued.

“Nobody had drawn any blood,” recalled his mother, during the search for the cause of his persistent cough. “He ended up in the emergency room, and they told us he had leukemia.”

At age 26, Michael McCauley was facing his second type of cancer and, again, fighting for his life.

“He had a bone-marrow transplant from his sister, 60 days after his cancer came raging back,” Marcie said. “He did a trial [of still-being-tested cancer-fighting treatments] but it was not successful.”

Her son asked his mother to continue Boredom Busters as his legacy.

“It became an official 501(c)(3) the day after he passed away,” said Marcie. “It was 15 months from his diagnosis until he passed away on Easter Sunday of 2020.”

Boredom Boxes distract hospital patients

By 2022, Marcie McCauley said the nonprofit had delivered more than 2,000 boxes and bags to hospital patients.

A hospital stay can be challenging, both physically and mentally, for patient and parent.

“It’s a lot of waiting,” said “After doctors have made their rounds and have all left, and you’re sitting there with nothing to do, and not really having the concentration to sit and read a book.”

Over the years, the contents of the boxes changed.

“We’ve sent phone chargers, the things you forget when you check into the hospital — slippers and toys for the kids to entertain them,” said Marcie. “I always put in things for the parents, too, like a deck of cards.”

She recalled Michael wanted to sent a birthday card to someone when he was in the hospital. Marcie went downstairs to the gift shop and thought the cards on sale were tailored for adults.

“So, now every bag has a card in it that’s already stamped for somebody to send,” she said.

The Boredom Busters boxes typically contain hats, cards, socks, toothbrushes, games and puzzles.

For parents requesting Boredom Busters for their child, and for people wishing to donate money for the nonprofit, visit

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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