By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

VINELAND — One of the latest editions of the popular creator-generated YouTube show “ToyQuest 101” started with a smiling Illiana Figueroa and her father Miguel Figueroa discussing the arrival and unboxing of The Mandalorian Legends in 3D ½-scale bust from Gentle Giant.

Over the next nine minutes, viewers got to sense the joy in this father-daughter duo as they spoke about their latest pop culture toy and shared it with their social media viewers.

“I love this statue. What do you think?” 13-year-old Illiana said before turning it over to her father.

“I have to agree. If you’re an avid Star Wars fan or collector, or even if you like the Mandalorian, this is definitely a piece to have in your own collection,” Miguel said.

YouTube Inspiration

While it is hard to deny the charm of the show as the father and daughter dish on pop culture toys, the show has been an outlet for Iliana who is diagnosed with autism. They hope the show inspires and encourages other young people with autism and special needs as well as giving them the low down on the newest toys.

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“I like to be on the YouTube channel with my dad because I spend time with him and we inspire many other kids that are just like me,” Illiana told Front Runner New Jersey La Prensa. “The show has helped me overcome my insecurities so that I can become a better person. I feel more comfortable speaking in front of an audience which has helped me a lot in school.”

More than 118,000 subscribers follow Illiana and her father on their ToyQuest 101 YouTube channel with views in the thousands for various episodes.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today.

Lights, Camera, Action

From the basement of the family’s Vineland home, no one can deny the smile on Illiana’s face, the enthusiasm in her voice and the pleasure she appears to take on “ToyQuest 101.” It was something not lost on her parents even after the first show.

ToyQuest 101 is picked up by the nonprofit Autism Speaks. Screenshot courtesy of Miguel Figueroa.

“When we did the [first] show, Illiana started to come out of her shell and show a lot of things that she struggled with growing up with autism,” Figueroa said. “She started talking more, putting sentences together, describing things better and pronouncing her words more accurately.

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“When we saw the episode, her mother and I looked at each other in shock and amazed on how well she did. As a family, we decided to continue on with the show to inspire kids with autism and special needs around the world so they can believe in themselves and feel empowered to pursue their dreams,” he added.

The challenge was to convince Illiana she could do the show in the first place. Miguel described how it all came about.

How It Started

“ToyQuest101 began when one day Illiana was watching a show on YouTube,” Figueroa said. “I turned to her and said you should do your own show. She turned off the tablet and got really sad. When I asked her what was wrong she said she couldn’t do it because she had autism.

“As a parent this broke my heart. It was the last thing I expected her to say. At that time, I was finishing up construction of my basement and being that I grew up with pop culture, I decorated it with comic book memorabilia. I decided to record an episode with her to show her that she can do anything she sets her mind on,” he said.

Darryl McDaniels, of Run DMC (m) with Illiana and Miguel Figueroa. Photo courtesy of Miguel Figueroa.

That was three years ago. Now “ToyQuest 101” has collected more than 55 million views over that time along with its 118,000 subscribers. Recently, the channel received the YouTtube Play Button Award and the George H.W. Bush Points of Light Award for outstanding charity and volunteerism work in their communities year round.

“Those are two major accomplishments that we are really proud of,” said Miguel Figueroa, son of award-winning Vineland educator Shirley Santos.

He added, though, none of those things compare to the growth he has seen in Illiana, who is now a member of the National Honor Society in school and continues to do volunteer work in the community because she enjoys seeing people smile.

“Words can’t describe how proud I am of Illiana,” Figueroa said. “Not only has the show helped her with her development and personal growth with autism, but it has also taught her about things outside of her comfort zone and how she can help others and inspire them no matter what obstacles they might be facing. Illiana is constantly helping others and being a positive role model for kids around the world. She feels like a superhero.”

‘Illiana Inspires Me:’ The Rest of the Story

Miguel Figueroa touched on numerous other topics with Illiana in their interview with Front Runner New Jersey La Prensa.

FRNJ: Tell me about the YouTube channel itself. I understand it’s a pop culture channel. What kind of subjects do you like talk about on it? How has it changed and grown over the years?

Miguel and Illiana Figueroa: ToyQuest101 is a YouTube pop culture review channel that inspires kids with autism and special needs through the power of toys and with the help of celebrity guests. Our mission is 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 story. 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 that their disability becomes a roadblock to accomplishing their dreams and/or wishes. 

On the show we unbox toys, review statues, and interview celebrity guests. Our shows are aligned with pop culture and comic book headlines. We review and open up what’s trending in the world of movies, TV shows, cartoons, and toys. We are partnered up with several major companies that support our mission in inspiring kids with autism and special needs and they send us the newest and most popular figures based on what’s trending in the world of pop culture. Some of our current partnerships are with Prime 1 studios, Sideshow Collectibles, Kotobukiya, and Diamond Select Toys. We also have had several celebrities on the show that we interview not only to inspire our viewers, but to also talk about some of the positive things that they do in their community aside from speaking to them about their story and their careers. We not only speak to things that relate to ToyQuest101’s mission, but we also tackle other topics that bring awareness such as mental health, suicide awareness, animal conservation, etc. We have had celebrities such as Darryl DMC McDaniels, from the iconic rap group RUN DMC; Sonya Deville; Titus O’Neil and Matt Cardona from the WWE; UFC fighters Paul Felder, Ricardo Llamas and Jonavin Webb; and cartoon celebrity voice overs like Rob Paulsen, who has voiced many cartoons such as the Animaniacs, Ninja Turtles and Pinky from Pinky and the Brain. 

FRNJ: What do you hope your viewers get from the show?

Miguel and Illiana Figueroa: We hope to inspire them to believe in themselves and not let their autism or special needs become a roadblock to accomplishing their dreams. We hope to help parents who struggle to find ways to help their kids with autism understand them; also to find ways to jump into their world and realize they are not alone. We hope for them to love our content, tune in to the latest reviews and interviews, while understanding how important it is to pursue your dream.

Illiana and Miguel Figueroa at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Photo courtesy of Miguel Figueroa.

FRNJ: How seriously do you take your role as a role model? Why?

Miguel Figueroa: For Illiana, she is a constant role model for kids around the world who have doubt or need a push from someone and be inspired. She hopes that when kids see her, they picture themselves being like her. Autism doesn’t stop her from being a social media influencer and helping others. She enjoys putting smiles on people’s faces, volunteering in her community, and helping other kids as much as she can. 

For myself, I hope to inspire dads (and parents) to be more involved in their children’s lives and to be a role model for parents with kids on the spectrum. We hope to continue our efforts and work around the community with our voluntarism and charity work.  We also hope to continue to inspire viewers around the world who listen to our channel.

FRNJ: Who has and continues to inspire you (parents, teachers, etc.)?

Miguel Figueroa: For myself, Illiana inspires me to continue on this journey with her. As a father, I want to give her hope and help her accomplish anything she sets her mind to. My grandfather and mother have inspired me. They always pushed for me to do the right thing, stay positive, be kind and help others. 

For Illiana, her inspiration is her mother. She has helped her through her journey since she was diagnosed at the age of 2. She has always known that Illiana could be more than her disability. They inspire each other. Illiana inspired her mother to become a special education teacher. They are very close and her mother is very involved in her education and extracurricular activities. 

FRNJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Miguel and Illiana Figueroa: For as much as we have accomplished in the last couple years, our biggest goal is to keep inspiring kids around the world. Even though we have over 118k subscribers, the thing that matters to us the most is that we impact someone even if it’s one person. That’s all that matters.  There is no bigger award than receiving an email or message from someone across the world saying they’ve seen one of our shows or learned about our story and we have inspired them to be more involved in their child’s life or their child speaking for the first time or starting their own YouTube show because of us. 

We do have some goals that we would like to achieve in the next couple years. Illiana has been part of the local swim team for the past five years. She has grown to have a passion for the sport. Prior to COVID, Illiana wanted to enter in the Special Olympics to represent kids with autism in swimming. One of her goals (after COVID) is to continue that journey. One of my goals is to eventually build a pool for here at home to help her accomplish that dream. 

As far as the show, we have two major dream goals. The first goal is obtaining our five dream celebrity guests to have on our show. These guest have helped create foundations and charity work all around the world. Those celebrities are: Ellen Degeneres, Will Smith, Hugh Jackman, John Cena and the number one celebrity dream guest is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Another dream of ours is to be on as a cameo on a pop culture or comic-related show or movie such as the Mandalorian, Marvel or DC films or shows. There isn’t a lot of inclusion when it comes to mainstream media for people with autism or special needs and we want to be the first to break that barrier and pave the way for others. We would even love for our show to be on a major network or on a bigger platform and break that barrier as well. 

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