June 30--CROSSVILLE -- Since her son was a toddler, Stephanie Gill dreamed of making his wishes come true. A couple of weeks ago, she was happy to see one of them become a reality.
Her eight-year-old son, Christopher, was granted a trip of a lifetime through the Sunshine Foundation. With the organization's help, he and his mother were able to enjoy an exciting five-day stay in the Sunshine State.
"I was absolutely floored because I didn't think we were going to get approved," said Stephanie.
The Sunshine Foundation, founded in 1976, is the very first wish-granting organization to grant the wishes of seriously ill, physically challenged and abused children ages 3-18. It was founded by a Philadelphia police officer named Bill Sample, who was assigned to a local children's hospital in the 1960s.
During his time at the hospital, he encountered critically ill children and saw firsthand how their families were burdened not only by mounting medical bills, but also by the frustration of not being able to provide their child's special dream. In 1976, Sample took out a personal loan and, with the help of others, started the Sunshine Foundation and began making dreams come true for children nationwide.
Stephanie, who is a single parent, learned about the Sunshine Foundation after doing an Internet search for free trips for children with autism. Because Christopher suffers from both autism and development delays, taking a family trip has been difficult due to the physical and financial stress that comes along with an illness. Looking for a way to bring happiness into her son's life that is so often filled with doctors and hospitals, she applied for a dream come true through the Sunshine Foundation.
"He has been through a lot," said Stephanie.
She explained that when Christopher was born, he had to spend his first eight days of life under a bili light, which is used to help prevent brain damage and other complications. At the age of two, he was diagnosed with autism. Between the ages of two and four, he battled chronic ear infections, which required a few surgeries. As he grew, other medical issues presented themselves.
Christopher was approved for a dream request and placed on the foundation's waiting list in July 2012. Stephanie found out late last year that the foundation had decided to send her and her son to Florida. She was first offered a trip in February, but Christopher was unable to go because of school. Then a date in June was offered, which sounded perfect to Stephanie.
"It worked out great because June 20 is his birthday," she said.
Through the organization, the family received funds for their driving expenses, lodging, theme park tickets and expense money. The foundation also hosted the family at its Dream Village, a 22-acre retreat in Davenport, FL, created specifically for special children that boasts nine uniquely themed cottages, a wheelchair accessible pool, handicapped friendly playground and even its own citrus grove where families can pick oranges.
"This was Christopher's first trip to Florida," said Stephanie. "I hadn't visited since I was five years old."
Joining them for the trip were Stephanie's mother, Ruth Jackson, and stepfather, Pat Jackson. The family decided to leave a couple of days early to spend some time at New Smyrna Beach.
"He loved the ocean," said Stephanie about her son. "He didn't want to leave. He's my water baby."
On June 20-22, the family spent their time at Disney World, where they kicked off their adventure in the Magic Kingdom. They concluded their trip at Universal Studios.
"His favorite part had to be swimming in the ocean," said Stephanie.
"He's an extraordinary kid," she added. "He's normally a homebody, but having him not worry about being at home was wonderful."
Today, the Sunshine Foundation utilizes 82 cents of every dollar to help a child's dream come true. So far more than 37,000 dreams like Christopher's have been answered. To learn more or make a donation, contact the Sunshine Foundation at 1-800-767-1976 or visit www.sunshinefoundation.org.
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