Through the power of toys, superheroes, some celebrity guests, and a lot of love, father and daughter Miguel and Illiana Figueroa are working to empower kids and make the world a more inclusive place for people with autism.
Miguel and Illiana are the stars and creators of YouTube show “Toy Quest 101,” where the duo review toys, discuss pop culture and occasionally interview celebrity guests ranging from WWE stars including Sonya Deville to Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels. Miguel was inspired to start the show to prove to his daughter that she can do anything she sets her mind to despite having autism. Their goal with each show is to promote a culture of acceptance where kids with autism and special needs can be empowered and not feel their disability is a road black to achieving their dreams.
As the show has grown, Miguel and Illiana have also volunteered throughout their Vineland, New Jersey community, using their platform to raise money for Red Nose Day, collect toys for kids in need during the holidays, support their local Boys and Girls Club, help feed the homeless, clean local parks, and more. Together, the father-daughter team are doing what they can to promote positivity and put smiles on people’s faces.
Describe what “Toy Quest 101” is.
Miguel: “Toy Quest 101” started off as a Youtube show. My daughter has autism and a couple years back, she was watching YouTubers on the computer … I told her one day she should do a show herself. She kind of looked down. She closed the iPad, and I said “What’s wrong?” She said “I can’t,” and I said “Why?” and she said “Because I have autism.” As a parent it broke my heart. I didn’t know what to do. At first I was a little upset because when I asked her why, she didn’t really say why, and I thought maybe she was being bullied and someone told her she can’t. When she gave me that response, it was a lot different from what I was expecting. I went ahead and I set up my basement. We did our first show and she started talking more, she started describing things more. Some of the things we were trying to help her with, some of the things she, as a kid with autism, was struggling with — speech, motor skills. When I saw that after the first video, me and her mom kind of looked at each other in surprise. We were like “Wow, we’ve never seen her like that.”
We took it to another level so we decided to create the show called “Toy Quest 101” where we try to transform the lives of children with autism and special needs worldwide, and inspire the lives of children and families through our videos and our stories. Our vision is to bring awareness and promote a culture of acceptance where all kids with autism and special needs can be empowered to do what they set their mind to, and not feel like their disabilities are a road block to accomplishing their dreams or wishes. That’s our mission and our vision. Basically we just want to make sure kids with autism and special needs, if they set their mind to want to do something or be somebody, that they can, and not let their disability become a road block to accomplishing their dreams. We started off opening up toys and unboxing blind bags and things that kids do nowadays. Then we took it to another level. We started having celebrity guests come on to the show who have a bigger platform to spread our message, and talk about their message too, because there’s a lot of people out there who have their own stories. To give an example, we had Darryl McDaniels from Run-DMC. He just got done promoting a book on mental health and suicide awareness so we started talking about that. Then we started taking on more things and spreading all kinds of positive messages and stories out there, not only with celebrities, but we also had local people from the community who are doing things themselves to promote positive things out there. … We do it all through the power of our videos and toys. We have a lot of kids who watch our show when we have celebrities on. We volunteer all the time. Anything we can volunteer on, or if anybody reaches out to us for help, we try and go do it. We just try to stay positive and put smiles on people’s faces, especially kids, and do what we can to make the world a better place.
Can you describe the volunteer work you’ve done?
Miguel: I try to volunteer as much as we can with whatever the cause be, as long as it’s positive. A lot of times we do stuff ourselves. Sometimes we get people reaching out to us to see if we could help. The most recent thing prior to COVID that we did, which made a huge impact, was we teamed up with T-Mobile and we got the entire district of south Jersey to do a toy drive for kids and families in need. I think we got around 150 different toys that we collected with the help of T-Mobile, which is a huge company that supports what we do, during the holidays when people need help the most. We went around and we gave out toys to four or five different causes. We went to a Boys and Girls Club, several of them around south Jersey. We surprised them with toys that the kids were super happy about. We got in touch with some districts and different schools and gave out toys to underprivileged families that really needed some help during the holidays. We also got involved with one of the special education departments in a specific school in our district where we visited all the special ed classrooms. It was kindergarten through fifth grade. It was five or six different classrooms, and we went in there and we gave toys to these kids and they loved us. Because we’re of Latino descent, we not only did it for Christmas but we did it through Three Kings Day. We went on several weeks of gathering the toys. We wrapped them up and we took them out to these different places and shared those moments with those families and kids.
We also have done things with Red Nose Day. We partnered up with Walgreens. There’s a Star Wars group of individuals that are the biggest cosplayers in the United States. Basically they go around and do cosplay and do things for special events like Red Nose Day, so we got all these people dressed up in professional Star Wars attire along with “Toy Quest 101” at the Walgreens. We were taking pictures and the proceeds went to Red Nose Day. We’ve volunteered to clean parks. Every year we do Pay It Forward Day. Usually we go out and we pack food for the homeless. This year, because of COVID, we couldn’t really do much, but we still wanted to try to make an impact so we donated some money to the ALL IN Challenge that helped with five different organizations. … We like to stay involved in stuff we do in the community with the Boys and Girls Club, cleaning parks, things like that. We do numerous amount of things and as much as we can just so we can set a positive example for everybody.
Have you gotten any feedback from other kids with autism or their families?
Miguel: We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback. The biggest one that impacted me was one day they called us up to do a free comic book day at one of our malls here in New Jersey. Basically a bunch of vendors set up and have their stuff out and are either selling or promoting art. They put a post up and we put a post up saying we were going to be there. Of course, we had a lot of people we knew come and see us. I took a break and Illiana stayed at the table with my mom. My girlfriend and I walked away from the table for a little bit. I was looking around at the other vendors … and all of a sudden I felt somebody grab onto my leg. I looked down and it was this little girl who I had never seen before in my life. I got a little scared because I was like, “What is happening?” She was like, “I’ve been looking at you this whole entire time.” And I looked at my girlfriend, and she looked at me, and I’m kind of confused. When I looked up, I see a parent walking toward me. She’s like, “Oh my god, you have no idea the impact that you had, the hope you’ve given my daughter.” Then she got off my leg finally and she showed me her arm. She had a bracelet that had puzzles on them like [the symbol for] autism. I never met these people before in my life. They were outside of town so they drive quite a bit to be there, and they wanted to meet Illiana and me. They watched our videos. It gave me so many goosebumps and I was almost to the point of crying, and I’m not somebody to cry like that. I brought her to my table and gave her all kinds of stuff because I was so impacted by the reaction I got from a complete stranger, and what we did and how she looked at my daughter as a role model and inspiration, and the fact that she has autism and now she feels it’s a super power and she can set her mind to do whatever she wants to do.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Miguel: For me, the biggest thing is even if I make one person smile and it changes their life, it’s worth all the time and effort in the world, because it’s going to stick with them. It’s going to be a memory for them. I remember being a kid growing up and I went to a wrestling show or a baseball game … it made a big impact. I remember them like it was yesterday. I remember high-fiving my favorite baseball player, or high-fiving a wrestler, or meeting someone I never in a million years thought I would meet, and it always stuck with me. I think if we can make that same impact in one person’s life, just like that little girl in the mall, that’s worth all the time and money and everything we put into it. Making that little girl smile or that person smile or giving that person hope. It’s all about giving someone hope to be motivated and feel like what they can accomplish is there, and not let anything discourage them from doing it. To give a positive influence on people to do good things, to volunteer more, to pay it forward, to donate, to go out and clean a park, to do something. It starts with you, with yourself. You can’t try to change everybody, but if you start with yourself and other people see what you’re doing, maybe it’s something that grows into something bigger and changes other peoples lives. That’s really the biggest thing we get out of it, the impact that we can make for somebody or for an organization or to make the world a better place. A lot of these things we do, especially with the bigger corporations, we don’t see the reaction or we don’t always get to see how it makes someone happy or impacts them, but we know it’s going to a good cause. We don’t always have to see that to know we’re doing good for either a person or a place or the earth or whatever you want to call it, but it’s always something we want to do.
Illiana: If we can make one person smile and make differences, that’s what my favorite part is. I like to help people and I know this makes them happy. I like seeing people smile and get excited when we do things.
What was your favorite video that you’ve done?
Illiana: My favorite video was when I was with Sonya Deville.
Miguel: Sonya Deville is one of the WWE superstars in wrestling. She is one of the female wrestlers. She’s been on the show twice. She was on the show in person and then during COVID, for Autism Awareness Month, she did a live with us. She’s actually been very special to the show. Not only is she in a sport that’s predominately male, but she and the other girls in the locker room just this past year started to make a stand for women and women empowerment, so they started doing matches that only guys did. They started pay-per-view events. They went overseas to Saudi Arabia where women are not really looked at to play sports. They actually were the first time ever allowed to go over there and put on a wrestling show and made history. They’re in a time right now where they’re making woman be in the forefront of the business. Not only that, but she also represents the lesbian and gay community and she is forever trying to do positive things and she’s really been a big impact. Sonya and Illiana have a real special bond. She follows us and texts us all the time to make sure we’re good. She’s just an awesome person. She’s actually from New Jersey originally as well. When the wrestling team is down in local areas, she’s constantly sending us tickets for us to go watch her and everybody else. She got us in touch with Titus O’Neil who is another wrestler we had on the show, so she’s been a really big support system for us. Her and Illiana are very close. She was one of the first handful of celebrity guests we got to be on the show … She believed in us from day one and that was very impactful to us and our viewers.
Illiana: Sonya is great and she is a special person who thinks autism is great. When I see her she has a smile on her face.
Is there anything you want people to know about autism?
Miguel: With autism, there’s different spectrums. Autism is such a wide spectrum. Illiana is on the lower end of the spectrum. But the biggest thing is it’s not a disability. For me, and I like to tell kids all the time, it’s your superhero power. There are some kids out there with autism who could sit there and play a whole entire Beethoven symphony on a piano. It’s just amazing. Any kid, whether they have autism or they a disability, can set their mind to something and just do it. It’s not a disability. It’s something they can work towards and use it and channel it to do what their hearts are set to do.
Illiana: It doesn’t matter if you have autism or any other disability, you’re still a great person and can do anything you want. Autism is a part of who you are and that’s what makes you special. That’s your superpower. Embrace it and be who you want to be.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Miguel: I think the biggest thing is to be kind, especially now with all this going on in the world. Be kind and be thoughtful and be someone who wants to be positive and make an impact in other people’s lives or just do good. I think that’s the biggest thing — to spread that love and that kindness, and the ability to volunteer and go out and make a change or a difference in your own community or your own backyard or if you want to do it on a bigger level. The biggest thing is we want to be able to not only make an impact, but make an impact where somebody else can make an impact for somebody else, and it just continues to go on and on and get paid forward every single time, and changes the life of somebody to do more good for themselves and the world.
Illiana: What I want people to know is that their dream can come true and to make people smile.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Miguel and Illiana? Find local volunteer opportunities.