Nellie de la Cruz didn’t expect anything in return when she made care packages for the nursing staff and emergency responders at St. Mary Medical Center during the pandemic when she was just 10 years old.

She has also donated pizza to police officers and made bracelets for kids and families at the hospital — mostly funded by her own allowance earned from home chores.

Now, St. Mary is giving back to Nellie, who is now 14.

In partnership with soccer team LA Galaxy, St. Mary Medical Center surprised Nellie and her family with dozens of gifts for the holidays on Monday, Dec. 18, including clothes, shoes, toys for her siblings, games, a TV and a Nintendo Switch.

Nellie said she was “shocked.”

“This family is very special,” said Carolyn Caldwell, president & CEO of St. Mary Medical Center. “She’s such a caring and warm-hearted young lady.”

Nellie is no stranger to hardship. Her grandmother died from pancreatic cancer in 2009, and then her aunt, Sheril Rodriguez, was diagnosed with it.

When she was younger, Nellie was herself a patient at St. Mary, where she was born, to be treated for recurring kidney infections for six months.

This all inspired her to help families cope and get through hard times as she had to. So, she started “Cancer Fighters” with a friend, making bracelets and goodie bags for patients. She also donated pizza to kids at the hospital.

Although she is soft-spoken and generally unwanting of attention or recognition, Nellie still wants to continue to raise awareness of pancreatic, breast and brain cancer and support families in their time of need. Next, she plans to raise awareness for rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects joints.

“I just hope to keep being able to give and help,” she said.

The most recent contribution from the 14-year-old was the donation of 84 stuffed animals to children at Long Beach Memorial, so children could have a “friend” while they underwent medical procedures, infusions and surgeries.

Her mother, Nellie Lopez, says she’s “beyond proud.”

She explained that much of her daughter’s caring efforts are funded by the money she earns from chores, occational donations and GoFundMe. Her family also helps out whenever they can.

“She’s always looking for the next opportunity,” said Lopez.

Her mom also said her daughter has taken an interest in studying law.

Nellie de la Cruz and her family accept gifts from the LA Galaxy Foundation and Dignity Health – St. Mary Medical Center at St. Mary in Long Beach on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. Photo by Maison Tran.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Carolyn Caldwell, president & CEO of St. Mary Medical Center.

Maison Tran is a fellow at the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected].