BROKEN ARROW — “I don’t think I have seen a grin that big on her face in forever.”
The words came from the mother of Paige Whorton when recalling a “wow” moment from Paige’s recent trip to San Diego Comic-Con.
Paige is a 13-year-old Make-A-Wish Oklahoma kid from Broken Arrow. She was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, mucopolysaccharidosis. She fights back against the metabolic disorder by undergoing weekly infusion treatments. Breaking news: They’re not fun.
Paige spends a significant amount of time waiting for medical appointments. While in waiting rooms, you might find her checking her phone to read comics online and to get updates about movies starring people in capes.
Make-A-Wish Oklahoma grants life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses. Paige’s wish was to attend San Diego Comic-Con. Paige considered trips to Norway and Hawaii, but because it’s so difficult to secure tickets to SDCC, she decided to hero up and take advantage of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Paige got a chance to interact with actors from comic book movies during an autograph signing event at San Diego Comic-Con. Two celebrities autographed the back of her jacket while she was wearing it.
Paige’s smile was so bright that it probably could have illuminated the convention hall. Luckily, there was no fainting, she said. But she was starstruck, according to her mother, Belinda, who said, “The next 30 minutes, her face was buried in her hands.”
Let’s tackle a few Make-A-Wish Oklahoma questions. Who’s eligible? What type of wishes are there? Does the organization strive to grant every request? And did you hear the one about the elephant?
A boy and his elephant
Caleb Gray of Shawnee was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005. A Make-A-Wish representative met with Caleb to talk about possible wishes. But what do you do when possible seems more like impossible?
Caleb’s family knew he would ask for something animal-related because he loved nature shows. Before being diagnosed, he expressed a desire for unusual pets, including an elephant and an anaconda.
“Amazingly, mom said ‘no’ to both of those,” his mother, Shanna, said. “Can you imagine?”
When wish time arrived, his first choice was an elephant. His second choice was a beluga whale.
The elephant was more doable, so Make-A-Wish Oklahoma got him one.
The wish was granted thanks to a tip that circus elephants are housed on a farm in Hugo when the circus isn’t touring. The timing was perfect. A baby elephant, Obert, was living on the farm. Obert became Caleb’s elephant.
Obert was transported to Shawnee for the big reveal. Wish-A-Wish set up circus tents in the yard of Caleb’s “wish fairy.” Shanna said she was surprised by how much was done for her son that day. A ringmaster costume — top hat and all — was given to Caleb. Friends, family members and people from Caleb’s medical team attended a party with food, inflatables and clowns.
It wasn’t possible for Obert to remain in Shawnee, but because the elephant was a 2½-hour drive away, Caleb could visit “his” elephant whenever possible in Hugo.
Obert turned 3 years old a couple of months after the wish was granted. Caleb’s family paid a birthday visit.
“Whoever thought you would share cake with an elephant?” Shanna said. “He had his cake, and we had ours.”
Caleb has visited his elephant many times since in Hugo and at circus stops.
“Isn’t that great?” said Beverly Mullen, community engagement and development coordinator for Make-A-Wish Oklahoma. “It wouldn’t have happened if we said ‘no.’ We try not to say ‘no.’ We try to think, ‘How can we make this happen?’ ”
During the car ride home after the 2006 wish party, Caleb’s oldest sibling said he wanted a cheetah or a panther, according to their mother. Matter-of-factly, Caleb said, “Well, first you have to get leukemia. Then you can have a cheetah.”
Caleb had a relapse six months after he became an honorary elephant owner and had to start treatment again. Now, he’s a 19-year-old student at Oklahoma Baptist University.
Said his mother of the elephant experience: “It gave our family something — I wouldn’t say it’s normal — but something fun to look at and to think back on when we were going through a really difficult time.”
Let’s clarify something: These aren’t last wishes.
“All wish kids are not terminal,” Mullen said. “That’s the biggest misconception that we have.”
To be eligible for Make-A-Wish Oklahoma rewards, children must be diagnosed with a critical illness, they must live in Oklahoma, and they can’t have previously been granted a wish by another wish-granting organization.
Kids can be referred by someone in the medical field or by a social worker or by friends and family members, according to Mullen. They can refer themselves. But, ultimately, a doctor determines who qualifies.
Make-A-Wish Oklahoma, which follows policies and guidelines established by Make-A-Wish America, has offices in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Mullen said the statewide organization grants between 140 to 175 wishes annually. More than 300 children are on a waiting list, and new names are added regularly. Mullen said new donors, volunteers and medical professionals are needed in every corner of the state.
Wish granters are volunteers. They go through training to learn what to ask when meeting with a child and how to determine a child’s wish.
Heather Lens of Westville is a wish granter because she wants to pay it forward.
She and husband Christopher have a 5-year-old daughter, Maddie. In 2012, Maddie was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease that caused tumors to grow in her brain and other vital organs. Three years ago, Maddie underwent brain surgery to remove a part of her brain that was causing seizures. Make-A-Wish Oklahoma called a few months later and, because Maddie wanted to see princesses, her wish to go to Disney World was granted.
“For us, it was absolutely incredible to see Maddie not have any worries,” her mother said. “There were no worries that week at Disney World.”
The family had been to Disney World before, but Maddie was in no condition to enjoy the earlier trip because of the effects of medication intended to control seizures. She got treated like royalty — private parades included — during the Make-A-Wish trip.
“I was overwhelmed that somebody would care enough about Maddie to give us that experience,” her mother said. “We got on the plane and headed home after the long week, and it was kind of bittersweet because you just had the best week of your entire life, but it’s over now.”
She and her husband looked at each other and they knew: We have to give back.
One of the wishes Mom has helped grant was arranging a trip to Disney World. Comes around, goes around.
Making a wish come true
About those wishes:
“We don’t go in and say, ‘Do you want a trip to Disneyland? Do you want a trip to Disney World?’ We don’t say that,” Mullen said. “It’s up to the child’s imagination. If you could go anywhere or be anything or do anything, what would you like to do? We kind of narrow it down. We want it to be the child’s wish. We don’t want parental influences.”
Mullen said wishes typically fall into one of five categories.
• I wish to go. The wish is a destination or special place like Disney World or Hawaii, or maybe a wish kid wants to swim with dolphins. Disney is the No. 1 wish destination. Paige said this about Make-A-Wish Oklahoma sending her to San Diego Comic-Con: “It’s just incredible, really.”
• I wish to be. Who wants to be a policeman or fireman or model or superhero?
• I wish to have. Mullen said many teens want a room makeover or electronics or a media room.
• I wish to meet. Kids ask to meet actors, athletes, musicians or other celebrities. The most requested celebrities are pro wrestler John Cena and singer Taylor Swift, according to Mullen.
• I wish to give. Wish kids can have anything within reason, but some still choose to give their wish away. Maybe they feel like donating a toy room to a children’s hospital. Mullen said an Oklahoma City teen’s wish was to give his piano teacher a grand piano. “We’ve had some pretty special ones,” she said.
Mullen said no kid wants to go to hospitals and be poked and sticked with needles. Wishes are meant to inspire kids to think about something else. Transformations sometimes occur. Local wish kid Brandon Teague described a 2009 WrestleMania trip as a “life-saver” moment. He called the Make-A-Wish folks “real-life superheroes.”
Local wish kid Jon Morley got an opportunity to meet members of a professional baseball team and throw out the first pitch at a game five years ago. Fans cheered. He said Make-A-Wish gave him one of the best days of his life.
Wish granter Sandy Blevins said that, from her experiences, Morley is the kid whose life was most impacted by a wish.
“When we first met, he didn’t want to be touched,” she said. “He was real shy and wouldn’t hardly talk. ... He got up on stage and danced with one of the players at a fundraiser (with baseball players), and his dad sent me a video of it and I’m like, who is that? It has changed his life.”
Paige Whorton brought her autographed jacket and a notebook full of highlights when it was time to talk about her trip to San Diego Comic-Con. She was treated to a send-off party at Dave & Buster’s, a national Make-A-Wish partner, before departing with her father (Lance), mother and brother (Blake).
Paige likes a specific comic book hero because that character has a close relationship with a brother, so it makes perfect sense that Paige wanted her brother to tag along to San Diego.
Paige and Blake cosplayed together as comic book heroes one day at the con. People at the con who learned Paige was a Make-A-Wish kid made sure she received first-class treatment.
The convention was great fun, but she and her family took breaks to go on side trips all around the San Diego area. She wore her mother’s shoes, and lost one of them, during an amusement park ride.
“It was really good to have the juxtaposition of crazy wonderful chaos at Comic-Con and then be able to relax and do kind of the more decompressing activities,” Paige’s mom said.
On the last day of the convention, Paige found herself in possession of a souvenir that will always mean something to her. So will the autographed jacket.
Whenever Paige is having a bad day, those reminders may “bring back” the San Diego experience for her, according to her mother, who said this about Make-A-Wish Oklahoma: “Knowing that there are people out there that care, I think will really propel us a long way.”