PHOTOS BY W PHOTOGRAPHY
It’s a little-known fact that every square inch of Disney World is “imagineered” to reveal itself as you enter. Everything, from the endless acres around the park to the boat ride over the pond is designed in such a way that you first see subtle hints, the monorail sweeping by, the highest spire of Cinderella’s castle soaring up from the landscape, the tallest boughs of Animal Kingdom’s Tree of Life, appearing as glimpses before the noise and spectacle of Main Street USA opens up in front of you.
It’s a marvel of wonder management and it all starts with a simple sign, stretched across four lanes of asphalt, declaring the “Happiest Celebration On Earth.”
For young Kaylani Kaufman, stricken with LGL leukemia, seeing that sign was quite literally a wish come true.
“She didn’t know we were going until she saw that sign,” said her mother Jilian. “We took a video where she was just screaming and yelling, jumping up and down. She barely waited for the van to stop.”
It was a welcome respite for Kaylani, the young girl with the infectious giggle, who had been recuperating slowly from a 2011 bone marrow transplant. That sign opened up a blissful stay at the Give Kids the World resort that included trips to Sea World, Universal Studios and of course, the Magic Kingdom.
“The first thing we got to do was meet Mickey Mouse,” said Jillian. “He spent so much time with her, doing magic tricks and showing her around.”
The entire trip, from accommodations to tickets to travel, was furnished by the local branch of an organization that has done more for kids than the imagineers at Disney could ever dream of: The Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“Make-A-Wish was amazing,” said Jilian. “Being a single parent, I thought it would be a challenge. They put my mind at ease.”
Make-A-Wish was founded in 1980 when U.S. Customs Officer Tommy Austin decided to pull a few strings for 7-year-old James Greicius, who was being treated for leukemia. Austin knew Greicius wanted to be a police officer, so he was able to arrange a kid-sized uniform, a ride in a police helicopter and a swearing-in as an honorary police officer. Since then, thousands of sick and terminally ill children have been granted wishes, lifting spirits and unburdening these young souls from the cruel weight of their disease, if only for a little while.
The South Carolina chapter formed in 1984, and has granted more than 2,000 wishes since then, including several in the Lowcountry.
“No child is ever denied a wish,” said Cindy Wood with Make-A-Wish Beaufort County. “Disney is always popular, but we had one child that wanted to go see the Monarch butterflies in Mexico. One child in Bluffton wanted to meet Eli Manning.”
There’s no denying the effect this wishfulfillment can have, especially to a child who has been through the gut-wrenching hardship of a diagnosis. Take Nicholas Abrams, who was diagnosed in February 2012 with T-cell ALL. Despite the news, young Nicholas showed immense strength throughout his ordeal.
“When the doctors told us, he looked at the doctor and said, ‘I want to start treatment now.’ He didn’t want to wait,” said Nicholas’ mother, Becky Abrams. “He was gung ho. He’s done this whole thing with a smile on his face.”
Nicholas, a die-hard Star Wars fan, stayed at the Give Kids the World resort as well, taking in the full exhilaration of the theme park experience, including front-row seats to an epic recreation of the light-saber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and no less than four trips on the Toy Story ride.
“It was nice to forget about things for a little while,” said Becky.
Another local child making the trip to Orlando is Leo Vannoni. Originally planned for this past September, Leo’s trip was postponed due to complications with his treatment. Leo was first diagnosed in August 2012, and suffered through a full round of chemo before being told he needed a bone marrow transplant. A donation from his sister and a “chemo bomb” followed, setting Leo on the path to recovery. But that path, as any survivor will tell you, is as long as it is winding.
“He was doing great, and responding really well to treatment,” said Leo’s mother, Kelly. “There were no complications until June of this year when he came down with a virus. For anyone else it’s fine, for him it was devastating.”
With his trip postponed, the community rallied around Leo. Students at Bluffton Middle School came up with a competition to raise funds for Leo’s wish.
“The trip was already funded, but they wanted to replace what the trip cost,” Kelly explained. The students ended up not only meeting but exceeding their goal, thanks in no small part to TD Bank, which donated $12,000 to the cause. “It’s amazing what the kids did. Leo was like a rock star when he showed up at the school.”
“That’s really what it’s about,” said Wood. “Kids helping kids.”
Bluffton Middle School isn’t alone in embracing the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s goals. Wood speaks with a tone of awe at the outpouring of support she sees each day from the community.
“There was one wish child who loved Corvettes,” she said. “The Corvette Club delivered his Disney package in a ‘Vette, then took him for a ride.”
“We were in his neighborhood, and it was full of stop signs. I looked at him and said, ‘That’s not enough, is it?” said Bill Schmidt of the local Corvette Club. “So we took him for a spin down to Parris Island and back. It was a pretty spirited ride, and with the top down he had a great time.”
That joy in giving led Bill and his friend Bill Linkner to rally the rest of the Corvette Club, and now Make-A-Wish children will be riding in style during this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Schmidt is not alone in giving. Islandbased pilot David Thompson has volunteered to take a Make-A-Wish child up in his plane for a Discovery tour of the island.
“I used to be an executive director with the Boys & Girls Club,” said Thompson. “So I have a soft spot in my heart for kids.”
Even the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra has gotten into the spirit. During a presentation to the local Rotary, Wood told a story about a young boy named Peter Rosset from Columbia.
Rosset, born with Down Syndrome, had developed leukemia. The young boy was also a budding piano prodigy and the Make-A-Wish foundation had been able to secure the child his own Steinway piano and a chance to play it during a performance of “The Nutcracker.”
“After the presentation, (HHSO President and CEO) Mary Briggs asked if we could get him to come down and play the closing of the symphony’s season,” said Wood. “Within 24 hours it was arranged.”
Rosset joined four other local kids on stage before the show, with his family enjoying a stay on the island courtesy a small army of local businesses. In introducing him, Briggs talked about, “how gifted and talented Peter is, how dedicated he is to learning the piano in spite of the difficulties he faces, and how happy we are to be able to give him the opportunity to play before an orchestra, something he’s always wanted to do.”
Videos of Rosset’s performance prove he brought the house down. It was a moment of pure enjoyment for a child who has faced so much, and a sterling example of what our community can do when it comes together.
Wood is always seeking the help of local businesses in making wishes come true for local children. Anyone looking for a chance to make a difference can see more at sc.wish.org.