When the senior class at Heritage Academy learned the identity of the child who was going to be the centerpiece of their community service project last week, its members decided to have a pep rally to mark the occasion.
But Thursday afternoon, just moments before the start of the pep rally, no one knew how the guest of honor, 7-year-old Ethan Marsh, would handle it.
“He’s not real good with loud noises,” said his father, Chris Marsh, as he and his wife, Janet, and Ethan waited in the lobby outside the gym for the event to begin. “We’ll see.”
Equipped with noise-canceling headphones, Ethan sat silently, but happily, through the 30-minute pep rally as the Heritage senior class announced their choice for a senior project — funding an all-expenses paid trip for the Marshes to Disney World through a partnership with Make-A-Wish of Mississippi.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation is a nonprofit that arranges experiences described as “wishes” to children, ages 2 to 17, who have been diagnosed with critical illnesses. With chapters in every state and 50 counties, the organization grants 300,000 “wishes” each year.
In Mississippi, Ethan will be one of about 100 kids whose wishes are granted each year, thanks to the 28 Heritage seniors who chose it as their senior class community service project when the school year began in August.
“We had several options to chose from for our project,” Student Government President Gigi Fields said. “We felt that Make-A-Wish was the best wish for our class because we wanted a project that had a personal connection to our school and our community.”
After choosing Make a Wish, the seniors turned to Stacy Craig, the state’s Make-A-Wish coordinator, to find a candidate.
Craig said there are currently 185 Mississippi children on the state’s Make-A-Wish waiting list.
An obvious choice
Ethan, whose family lives in New Hope, was an obvious choice since the Heritage students wanted to help someone locally.
Born with a congenital heart defect, Ethan has had two open-heart surgeries in his short life and will likely need more, his father said. He was also born with a hypo-plastic kidney, which means he is essentially living with one kidney. He is also autistic and does not speak.
Despite those health issues, Ethan seems determined to be a “regular kid,” his father said.
“He goes to school and can do most of the things other kids do, only he needs constant adult supervision,” he said.
Craig said that because of their medical conditions, the children Make-A-Wish work with are accustomed to being told, “No, you can’t.”
If you were to crystallize what Make-A-Wish does for the kids, she said, it is through providing a different answer.
“We at Make-A-Wish like to say yes,” Craig said. “Yes, you can go and meet Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons. Yes, you can go to Hawaii and swim with the dolphins. Yes, you can have a swimming pool in your back yard, Yes, you can meet an actor in Hollywood.
“That’s what we do,” she added. “We give them hope, strength and joy. Not just the wish kid, but their entire family.”
‘A marvelous charity’
One of those families also participated in Thursday’s pep rally at Heritage.
Dr. John King, a Columbus cardiologist, spoke about his family’s experience with Make-A-Wish. His 6-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was granted her wish in 2016 as she battled leukemia. Thursday, cancer-free Elizabeth joined the Heritage cheerleaders in cheering at the pep rally.
“This is a marvelous charity,” John King said. “This is the human aspect of treating somebody that has a terrible illness or a terrible condition. It’s the fun part. They’re going to do fun things with this money. It’s nice to be able to give a gift that you know is going to go to something that’s good and fun. It’s something we can all be proud of.”
Students initially set a goal of $10,000 for Ethan — the average amount required to grant a wish — but has since raised it to $50,000. They have already raised $7,000. The surplus money raised with help Make-A-Wish fund other wishes.
A special guest
Thursday’s pep rally was a scripted event — the school even had a printed itinerary.
But there was one departure from the script.
Near the end, Lynne Snead, a math teacher and senior project sponsor at Heritage, asked the Marshes to yell “Hail State” as a special guest walked into the gym.
Chris Marsh, who had worn a Mississippi State t-shirt and ball cap to the rally, said his choice of apparel was not coincidental.
“They had asked me earlier this week who Ethan’s favorite football player was,” he said. “That’s all they said, but I thought something was up.”
Indeed, as Ethan’s parent dutifully shouted, “Hail State,” MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald strode across the gym floor, giving the family a hug and presenting Ethan with an autographed MSU helmet.
“Ethan can’t go to the games, but he does watch the games on TV,” Chris Marsh said. “When he sees Nick, he points to the TV. He knows who he is.”
Fitzgerald was clearly moved by the event.
“I’d like to be involved with many more things like this,” Fitzgerald said. “I think a lot of people take for granted waking up healthy every day. This reminds you that things could be a lot worse. For a child like that to have to go thorough something like this, it’s heartbreaking. I’m glad Make-A-Wish is going to be able to help him out.”
The Marshes will make their all-expense-paid trip to Disney World next November.
“There wasn’t any question what his wish would be,” Janet Marsh said. “He loves Mickey Mouse.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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