Ocean City While 3-year-old A. J. runs around the deck of the outdoor pool at the Sea Watch condominiums, his mother, Jean Bauguess, is in hot pursuit. "OK, A. J., you can stop now. Put your piggies in the water," she coaxes the mischievous little boy.
Just like other vacationers, the West Virginia factory worker and her children, Anthony "A. J." McColl and 7-year-old Christina Bauguess, are here for the week to swim, build sand castles and visit the boardwalk, trying to do what the ads suggest and "capture an ocean memory."
But what they'd like to do even more this week is to forget -- specifically, to forget the difficulties they've faced between July 1989, when A. J. was diagnosed with cancer, and this past January, when doctors pronounced his disease in remission.
The Bauguesses are participants in the Grant-a-Wish Foundation's beach retreat program, which brings children with
life-threatening illnesses to the healing atmosphere of the seaside.
The Baltimore-based foundation leases four Sea Watch efficiencies and a single-family home in Fenwick Island toprovide families with free, weeklong vacations and weekends.
Last July, 13-year-old Sean Allen and his family took a break from his leukemia treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital and, through Grant-a-Wish, escaped to Ocean City.
"He went walking on the beach at sunrise with his grandmother, just having long talks," recalls his father, James Allen. "He bought a hat on the boardwalk, and we called him a gangster because it was a black hat with a big, wide brim. It was a thoroughly enjoyable time." Sean died in January.
"There are two focuses of the retreat program," says Brian
Morrison, the Grant-a-Wish Foundation's executive director. "No. 1, it's for the whole family. And No. 2, it's for their ongoing use, not just a one-time thing. It's a place they can come during the increasingly stressful months or years it takes for their children to go through treatment."
"You have no idea how painful long hospital stays are," says Mike Polk of Baltimore, whose 9-year-old son Chris died last NTC summer after a four-year fight with cancer. "You spend four days at the hospital in treatment. Then you go home, and just when your child is starting to feel better, his blood count drops and you have to go back.
"And the hospital bills are tremendous. People like ourselves, who are just working people, couldn't afford to go to the ocean."
In 1990, 137 children participated in the program, with more than 1,000 family members living in the condos at one time or another during the year. Demand for the program is so great that this summer's weeks already are filled with high-priority families -- those whose children are newly diagnosed with serious illnesses or whose kids had been in remission but recently have relapsed.
Other families are on a waiting list that Mr. Morrison hopes to accommodate, as he scrambles to find beach condo owners who have open weeks that they might be willing to donate to Grant-a-Wish families. He hopes they will embrace the program just as the Ocean City locals have.
"Ocean City's people and businesses have just been tremendous," he says. "They've done an incredible amount over the last five years to make Ocean City a very warm place for families to visit."
A group of local volunteers puts together welcome baskets for each visiting family, filled with coupons and gift certificates for meals, entertainment and souvenirs, all of which are donated by area merchants. The volunteers also make sure each unit is completely furnished with extras like towels, cribs and toys.
Grant-a-Wish started in 1982 when Mr. Morrison's job brought him into contact with University Hospital's pediatric oncology unit. Seeing "all these little bald-headed kids running around," bravely enduring chemotherapy, led him to ask a social worker if there were anything he could do to help out.
"Well, There was one little girl there, 4-years-old, who wanted a pair of green roller skates," Mr. Morrison recalls, "even though she would never be able to use them. So I went home and got a pair of skates and painted them green. And they sat beside her bed for the last two weeks of her life."
Since then, Grant-a-Wish has sent sick kids and their families to Disney World, introduced them to celebrities like Hulk Hogan, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, established in-hospital entertainment and education services and supported summer camps.
Its most popular service continues to be the beach retreat program.
"You can call them at almost any time," Mr. Polk says. "When you're starting to get filled up with doctors and meetings and vomiting, you can just call up and say 'take me away.' It's like you're in a little dream world when you're there."