By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
GALENA, Kan. —
The Make-A-Wish Foundation grants a wish somewhere in the country every 38 minutes. At 3 p.m. Wednesday, Andy Shepherd’s came true in Galena.
The 14-year-old sixth-grader from Joplin, Mo., has had induced cerebral palsy since he was shaken as a baby.
“He has severe learning delays and in December was declared legally blind,” said his grandmother, Linda Shepherd, a retired Joplin teacher. Andy and his father, Larry, live with her, and she has helped provide for his care since he was a toddler.
“He is very happy and outgoing and loves everybody,” she said. “He’s mostly a normal little boy.”
Normal except that doctors told the family that Andy likely would never progress beyond the cognitive abilities of a 3-year-old, and he likely would have no mobility and would need a wheelchair.
“But his evaluation in December showed he’s reached an 8-year-old’s development,” his grandmother said proudly. “And he’s able to walk on his own using forearm crutches now. He has far exceeded everything they said.”
It hasn’t been easy. Andy has had two major surgeries — hip reconstruction and a selective dorsal rhizotomy on his vertebrae — and intensive pediatric therapy.
“My hope with this was to just make him happy,” his grandmother said. “He just wants to be a regular little boy.”
She turned to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for help. A team of about 25,000 volunteers helps Make-A-Wish grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to give them hope, strength and joy.
“It’s not a last wish — it’s a wish to encourage them to keep them going,” said Southwest Missouri volunteer Marla Gourley, of Galena. “Especially if they have something not life-threatening. For example, cancers are life-threatening, but there is hope.”
Gourley, 40, was diagnosed with uterine cancer when she was in her early 30s and recently began using crutches after a torn hip ligament. She said she understands what a person goes through when faced with physical and emotional challenges.
“It was a thing that drew my attention really quick,” Gourley said. “It’s a touching area to my heart all the way around.”
Andy, a fan of Pixar’s “Cars” movie, expressed a wish that especially touched a nerve with Gourley: He wanted to see one of his favorite characters, Tow Mater, in real life, drive along Route 66 and visit Cars Land at Disneyland in California.
“I live here and take for granted that street,” Gourley said of Route 66 in Galena. “But here he is, and all he wants to do is be on Route 66 and go to California. That’s getting emotional.”
Gourley put out requests for help from fellow Galena residents, all of whom said they were happy to comply. Police Chief Larry Delmont and Cherokee County Sheriff David Groves agreed to escort Andy and his family into town on Route 66 from the Missouri state line, and they did so with lights on the patrol cars flashing.
Renee Charles and Melba Rigg, sisters who own Four Women on the Route, arranged for Andy to see Tow Tater, the old rusty tow truck parked outside the restored service station. The local icon was the inspiration for the Pixar movie character Tow Mater, but it cannot go by that name because of copyright rules.
Mike Wallis, the voice of Sheriff in “Cars” and an active Route 66 historian and advocate, sent his autograph, which Gourley presented to Andy upon his arrival Wednesday afternoon. Mayor Dale Oglesby presented Andy with a silver badge that read “Official Route 66 Tourist,” and a Route 66-themed key that he said belonged to Tow Tater.
Danny and Kathy Anderson, who own the Streetcar Station on Main Street, agreed to host a small Lightning McQueen-inspired party that Gourley put together, and the Galena Dairy Queen contributed a custom-made “Cars” ice cream cake bearing the message, “Have a great adventure, Andy!”
The youngster then headed a few doors north to LaTurner Barbershop, where Bob LaTurner gave him an official Route 66 haircut — a flattop — and helped him add his signature to his wall, a tradition for visitors from as far away as Spain.
“It’s something we felt was really important for him,” Gourley said. “He’s been through a lot since he was born. We wanted to try to make it like he’s a king.”
This morning, Andy, his grandmother, his father and his cousin Julie Shepherd, a senior at College Heights Christian School in Joplin, are headed to Kansas City to catch a 10:30 a.m. flight to Cars Land. They’ll get to spend several days there seeing sights that Andy already has marked on a brochure for the theme park.
During the festivities, Andy gave a big smile and nods of approval at all the attention and the special “Cars” memorabilia he was given. He was slightly disappointed that he couldn’t take Tow Tater with him, teasing Rigg that he wanted to own it.
Gourley said she thought the effort — her first as a Make-A-Wish volunteer — was worth it when she saw his smile.
“We do some amazing stuff in these small towns,” said Oglesby, the mayor. “It’s really neat to get to do stuff like this.”
SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 1980, the Make-A-Wish Foundation has granted more than 226,000 wishes, with nearly 14,000 of them granted last year.