‘We feel so blessed’

A Make-A-Wish celebration puts a spotlight on a 3-year-old who will soon go to Walt Disney World with his family.

Make-A-Wish Michigan and Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital came together Thursday to celebrate a record year of wish-granting in 2017.

Several grownups took the stage at the Balk Cafe to express their thanks.

But as expected, a little child stole the show.

As 3-year-old Bennett VanderVennen arrived on stage with his mother and five older siblings, Make-A-Wish and hospital staff members beamed. It’s kids like Bennett who give them reason to grow their wish-granting partnership.

Bennett, who has completed treatment for a brain tumor, will get his wish Feb. 22. That’s when he will go to Walt Disney World Resort with his parents, Amber and Bruce VanderVennen, and his brothers and sisters―Felicity, 12, Faith, 10, Natalie, 8, Jackson, 6, and Jude, 4.

A big fan of Mickey Mouse, Bennett will also get a special meet-and-greet with the beloved Disney character.

Amber VanderVennen said she was touched by the love and community support that made Bennett’s wish possible.

“It’s such an amazing privilege,” she said. “We feel so blessed with such extravagant generosity.”

The VanderVennens, who live in Grand Rapids, learned in May 2016 that Bennett had an astrocytoma, a tumor in his brain.

He was 21 months old. He underwent surgery, followed by 14 months of chemotherapy, which ended in July. Now, he is doing “great” and keeps busy playing with his brothers and sisters, VanderVennen said.

When she and her husband discussed the possibility of a trip to Disney World in the past, they wondered how they would manage the logistics of such a big trip with a family of eight. She expressed gratitude for the support that will make the trip possible.

“We are overwhelmed with joy that we can have this experience together without either the lines or the cost,” she said. “I think we will all be blessed by it.”

Dreaming of possibilities

This year, staff at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital referred 148 children to Make-A-Wish Michigan―a record number, said Karen Davis, the organization’s president and CEO. In the past five years, the hospital has referred nearly 550 children to Make-A-Wish Michigan.

The organization grants wishes to children fighting life-threatening illness. The wishes include a wide range of trips and gifts, based on each child’s unique interests.

“Instead of thinking about the pokes and the prods that are going on, suddenly they are anticipating and dreaming and thinking about the possibilities to come,” Davis said.

“Wishes give kids back control at a time when control has been lost in their lives. It gives them back a sense of childhood.”

The children who receive wishes include those dealing with cancer, blood disorders, heart conditions, kidney disease and other serious illnesses, said Robert Connors, MD, the president of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

He praised the teamwork involved at both organizations in the growth of the partnership.

“We look forward to the partnership getting even greater and greater,” he said.

The Make-A-Wish experience has an extraordinary impact on children faced with life-threatening illness, said James Fahner, MD, the division chief of hematology and oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“It’s a unique opportunity for our kids and families that we are so grateful to have,” said Dr. Fahner, who has long been involved with Make-A-Wish.

And research is showing the wishes are more than just a “nice extra,” he added.

“What we are learning is that it is actually necessary,” he said. “It’s a fundamental part of the fabric of the care and the hope and the healing that is extended here at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital each and every day.”

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