Shawnee students bring delight to families battling illness

Students from Shawnee High School received a first-hand perspective on how their fundraisers have impacted families from a Florida trip.

Top row from left: Ella Purfield, Jennifer O’Connell, Michael Osmond, Lucy Clapperton Rachel Zhao, Sydney Robinson, Jordan Masters, Diane Kelly, and Abigail Rusnak.
Bottom row from left: Meghan Michalowski, Catherine McGlynn, Christina Ackerman, Olivia Cuff, Ellie Wetterau, Molly Hill, Ashley Martin, Julia Dobis, Caylie Dwyer and Julia Siragusa (Shawnee High School/Special to The Sun).

A mid-November trip to Florida helped Shawnee High School students see the personal impact of their fundraising and spend quality time with some recipients.

After a two-hour flight from Philadelphia to Kissimmee, Fla., 16 students from the school’s Kids for Wish Kids Club met the families of children battling serious illnesses at the Give Kids the World resort. The non-profit provides accommodations and theme park access to families referred by wish-granting organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Families get all-access admission to the central Florida park, which features whimsical characters, as well as access to Universal Orlando Resort, Disney World, SeaWorld and other area attractions.

It’s a reality check for all of us who come from such a school where we’re all alike and we all have the same privilege,” Shawnee junior Christina Ackerman said. “It’s a reality check that not as many kids are as fortunate as us, and to actually put in the work, time and effort to not only help in raising money, but to get our hands dirty and work with the kids.

Other students reflected Ackerman’s sentiment, noting the four-day trip humbled them as they talked to and connected with families at the resort. Club Advisor Diane Kelly said after the trip, the students were more motivated to brainstorm ways of helping needy families.

One of the fondly remembered moments of the trip came in the Castle of Memories, where the students gazed up to see twinkling stars decorated by children from the resort in the Star Tower.

There’s a fairy who takes it and they put it up on the castle so families can come back and see it up there forever,” student Meghan Michalowski recalled. “There’s so many stars up there and it’s a beautiful thing.

“I was tearing up looking at the star tower up in the sky.”

Even with kids going through their own health trials and tribulations, students said they found numerous opportunities to share how similar they are to the children and their families.

Senior Julia Dobis remembered how she met a boy with a Mickey Mouse haircut who overflowed with excitement to show off his new hairstyle — much like any other kid.

I would talk to families and you wouldn’t be able to tell who some of the kids were,” Michalowski said. “Everyone’s so happy despite all they’ve gone through and they have such a positive attitude with loving, caring families.

Kelly added since the Kids for Wish Kids Club’s 2012 inception, it has expanded from six members to 270-plus students, and blew through fundraising goals as recent as last spring, when members raised over $20,000. Proceeds go to Make-A-Wish.

We started small one year and had a Zumba class and it raised $150,” Kelly noted. “And we celebrated over that because we didn’t foresee raising that much money. We didn’t think it was a possibility, as there’s so many clubs in Shawnee.

“You feel as though it’s not possible to raise more money, and you do it.”

While still remembering moments from the trip, Ackerman explained how it boosted her appreciation for what she has in her life. In meeting the families — especially those who’ve experienced a loss — she learned how valuable life is and to not take loved ones for granted.

There’s a book about a girl who came to Disney when she was 4; she was sick and depressed, but when she left, her spirits were lifted from that time,” Kelly related. “Her and her mom credit Give Kids the World for curing her.”