Every smile worth 'a million bucks' at party for seriously ill children At Grant-A-Wish event, their being alive is a gift to parents

December 22, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

When the big green dinosaur started shaking its tail on the dance floor, Will Meissinger just had to laugh.

It was a welcome moment of holiday merriment for Will, a cancer patient who defied doctors' grim diagnosis by celebrating his 10th birthday last month. For his parents, it was a Christmas gift worth treasuring.

"Every smile, to me, means as much as a million bucks," his mother, Deidre Meissinger, said yesterday as the Grant-A-Wish Foundation's holiday party raged around her.

"Christmas means more to me this year than it ever has in the 32 years I've been alive," she added. "I realize how important it is for me just to have my kids. Nothing else matters."

The Overlea woman's attitude was shared by many at the Grant-A-Wish party. On a day when malls were packed with shoppers, more than 300 children with life-threatening diseases and their parents gathered at Martin's West to eat and dance and give thanks for the chance to share the holiday.

Yesterday was an opportunity for the parents to set aside their worries. For the children, the party offered a carnival of fun.

The menu included pizza and hot dogs, cotton candy and ice cream sundaes. The only green vegetable in sight was lettuce for the tacos.

The party included games to play and cuddly characters to hug. Winnie the Pooh and Tigger roamed among the children, as did Simba the Lion King. The Oriole Bird cut up on the dance floor. Santa and Mrs. Claus made a grand entrance and were enthusiastically welcomed.

Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes signed autographs, as did bodybuilder Kevin Levrone and players from the Baltimore Spirit and one from the Baltimore Ravens, Leo Goeas, who is on the injured list. Many children unwrapped gifts to find toy bottle-cap makers and Inspector Gadget action figures.

Brian Morrison, director of the Grant-A-Wish Foundation, said the party brings together in a festive environment families that are used to seeing each other in grim hospital settings.

"This is just an opportunity for families to socialize and just enjoy the support of one another," he said.

Morrison founded the Grant-A-Wish Foundation 16 years ago, when a nurse at University of Maryland Hospital told him of a girl whose dying wish was to own a pair of green roller skates. Morrison found some skates and some paint and made the girl's dream come true.

Now, the Baltimore-based foundation serves 32,000 children a year across the country. It grants wishes to critically ill children. Typical requests are to meet sports stars such as Cal Ripken Jr. or Michael Jordan. But Morrison said one girl just wanted to touch the emblem on a Power Ranger's uniform.

The organization also operates the Children's House at Johns Hopkins Hospital, providing comfortable accommodations for ailing youngsters and their families. The foundation puts on a summer picnic at the Baltimore Zoo as well as its annual holiday party.

Yesterday's event was designed for children like Kevin Hatton II, who said he enjoyed the food. Because the 11-year-old Reisterstown boy lost his eyesight to cancer, his father helped him put cherries on his ice cream sundae.

At one of the tables, 12-year-old Ricky Gambrill expressed his delight with a coyote's howl. Diagnosed with brain cancer at age 1 and given two years to live, Ricky, like many of the oncology patients at yesterday's party, battles on.

"We all are celebrating the accomplishments and strides our kids have made," said his mother, Karen Gambrill. "He's facing more tests, and they always seem to come around the holidays. We try to make the holidays extra special."

Ricky and his family have been coming to the Grant-A-Wish Foundation's holiday party for years, but yesterday was the first party for the Meissinger family. Until February, young Will had been a healthy child. Then came excruciating headaches.

In August, doctors found that he had brain cancer.

"When he was first diagnosed, they told us he'd never make it to 10," his mother said. But after operations in August and September, Will finished seven weeks of radiation treatment days before his birthday in November.

Deidre Meissinger said she and her husband, for the first time, are not exchanging Christmas presents this year.

"Some people, they look at gifts, gifts, gifts for Christmas. Then something happens like this," she said.

Her husband, William Meissinger, said he had one Christmas wish.

"I just want us to be a healthy family," he said. "That's all I really need."

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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