By Barbara Cole Feiden

Keelin’s Wish: To Play with Her Family

  |  Advice & News: Kids With Special Needs  

Five-year old Keelin Burns of Pearl River is blind. Her ability to talk is limited, and she needs help walking. But she laughs happily as she plays with her brother and sister on her new, custom-designed swing set, a gift from the Make a Wish Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Keelin was born without sight and suffers from a serious brain disorder. Her mother, Erin, has had to learn to say and spell the name of her disease, schizencephaly with hypoplasia. “She had silent seizures last year,” Erin says, “and she almost died.” She and her husband, Paul, talk openly about Keelin’s illness, but they also speak about Keelin’s beautiful blue eyes, her inquisitiveness, her persistence, and her love for her family. They will discuss the cleft in Keelin’s brain ventricle and her compromised immune system, but they’d rather tell you about Keelin’s desire to play with her siblings and the neighborhood children. Keelin lost her ability to walk after her most recent critical illness but she is re-learning the necessary skills and, with help, is able to move about the house. “We think she knows how sick she is,” says her mother. “She hears her brother and sister run around and knows that she can’t.” Although Keelin enjoys playing with her toys, she is unable to use conventional playground equipment. That’s where the Make a Wish Foundation came on the scene. The Hudson Valley chapter was chartered in 1986. Its mission, according to director of program services, Denise D’Amico, is “to grant the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.” During the past year, the not-for-profit organization has served 98 children between the ages of 2 and 18 in Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange, Dutchess, Sullivan, Ulster and Delaware counties. The agency hopes to approve 80 to 100 more wishes in the near future. “We exist to grant wishes,” says D’Amico. “If a child is deemed to have a life-threatening illness and if the wish can be fulfilled safely, it will be approved. The illness need not be terminal and there are no income guidelines.” In accordance with the regulations of the national Make a Wish Foundation, there is no cost to the family of the sick child. Because each wish is considered unique, there is no such thing as an “average cost”. According to D’Amico, children’s wishes tend to fall into four major categories: I wish to go (theme park, beach, cruise); I wish to be (firefighter, police officer, model); I wish to meet (athlete, movie star, politician); I wish to have (computer, shopping spree, tree house). Keelin, who attends Jawanio, Pearl River’s preschool for severely disabled youngsters, wished to be able to play side by side with her 7-year-old brother and her 19-month-old sister. The Make a Wish Foundation has provided and installed a large, specialized play set at her home. Designed by Peggy Payne of Peggy Payne Associates of Hawthorne and Hartsdale, it consists of a slide, swing, two-seater sports car, sandbox and rain panel. Equipped with a steering wheel and seat belts, the plastic sports car is built on three springs so Keelin can make it rock. One side is open to allow her to get in and out by herself. The sandbox includes a portable shade canopy. The free-standing rain panel comes with a child-friendly handle; when Keelin turns it, the sound of light rain is heard. Paul Burns is a landscaper and prepared their backyard for the equipment. “Make a Wish has been wonderful to us,” says Erin, who works as a claims representative for Allstate Insurance. “Volunteers came to our house to talk to us within a week of our initial inquiry. They brought gifts for all of the children and kept in touch with us while arrangements were being made.” Funds for the wishes granted by Make a Wish come from corporations, golf tournaments, bake sales, walkathons and generous individuals, says D’Amico, adding, “We are serving an ever-increasing number of very sick children, and that takes money and volunteers.” “Keelin’s wish was to be able to play more with family members,” says Erin, “and we are very happy that Make a Wish has made that possible.” People interested in helping are asked to call Make a Wish at (914) 478-9474. To discuss children’s wishes, ask for D’Amico. Prospective volunteers should contact Ali Bracken. To contribute or to discuss fundraising, talk to Marcia Simpson. The president and CEO of Hudson Valley Make a Wish is Jane Sherman.