Businesses Help Make-A-Wish
But the owner of Walt’s Autobody CARSTAR also knew there was no doubt they would complete this job. After all, it wasn’t just any client.
“There’s not a better organization out there than Make-a-Wish,” Koelzer said.
The Wisher Four-year-old Daniel is the youngest of Jeanette and Joe Wood’s six biological and five adopted children. He’s full of energy, loves being outside and lives with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The degenerative condition will likely shorten his life to his 20s, but Jeanette says she finds many blessings in being the parent of a terminally ill child.
“It’s like being picked the most amazing beautiful flower, and then praying it doesn’t wilt,” she said. “We’re enjoying every day with that beautiful flowering gift.”
The family says Danny blossoms most when he’s around trains. He’s already visited more than 30 states, counting trains as they move along the highways. At home, toy train cars and tracks are never far from reach. A favorite outing for Danny is a visit to Gage Park, where he’ll hop aboard their mini train with older brother, Sam.
A family care coordinator at Children’s Mercy Hospital told Make-A-Wish Kansas about Danny, which launched a big idea— what if Danny had his very own train in his back yard to ride whenever he wanted?
Dr. April Abernethy, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Kansas, says the process actively began in January. Through contacts she’s made over the years, she found Paul Neudecker, who runs an Illinois-based company called Premier Works. He was selling a mini train and donated a large percentage of the cost to the project, even delivering it to Topeka at no charge.
However, time had taken its toll on the train and work was necessary to make Danny’s dream a reality.
Becoming Wish Granters Lance Smith knows the power of a wish. His son, Isaak, who is now 13 years old, also has Duchenne. Two years ago, Make-A-Wish sent their family to Disney World.
“It was one of the best weeks,” Smith said. “For my son, it was perfect.”
Smith works as an estimator at Walt’s Autobody CARSTAR. Make-A-Wish reached out to him regarding a train that needed “a little bit of work.” It was Smith who approached Koelzer to get the train on track for Topeka. When they got their first up-close look, Smith said, they realized “it needs a lot more than just a little” work.
“But it didn’t matter,” Smith said. “They were very understanding on the time frame because our shop is really busy. We took a guy out of production to do this.”
Technician Jesse Haynes was assigned to make the repairs to the train and cars, replacing rusted-out metal and smoothing out the body. Tristan Hughes took the lead on the paint job. Koelzer estimated the pair put in about 275 hours on the project, squeezed between their regular duties at the shop.
“They never complained,” Smith said. “Jesse pretty much volunteered to do it as soon as he heard about it. They did awesome.”
Of course, the train wouldn’t be any fun if it just sat on the tracks and didn’t move, so the Wood family contacted Ash Davis of Davis Electric Construction, who had done several projects for them over the years. At first, Davis says he was only told they wanted a bid for getting electrical service to what would be an expanded playground area. A month a later, Make-A-Wish called and explained the vision. Davis agreed to charge only for materials. Make-A-Wish mentioned Lowes is a national partner with the organization, so Davis met with the manager of the Topeka store.
“He said, ‘Back your truck up and load it up,’” Davis recalls.
Davis then needed to rent a trencher for the task, so he visited his usual rental spot, Home Depot, which also waived its charge. As for the only remaining cost, his time, Davis didn’t hesitate.
“The Lord gave me gifts that I have to use for a purpose and he allowed me, in turn, to pass that on to a family in need,” Davis said. “Daniel is perhaps one of the most deserving little boys I have met.”
With the centerpiece on track at Walt’s Autobody CARSTAR, Davis Electric Construction wired for the electrical work and Trusted Choice Insurance donating money to help buy replacement pieces, Make-A-Wish and Danny’s family led an army of volunteers, including real Army soldiers from Fort Riley and KU’s Chi Omega-Lambda Chapter, to lay the tracks; add a play area complete with fort, sand box and trampoline; and even build a depot. International Mulch donated materials for the finishing touch.
“We’ve had 15 businesses, clubs and associations involved with this— hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours,” Abernethy said.
Wish Revealed Danny, recovering from a recent hospital stay, had no idea what was happening in the back yard until a Saturday in early July, when his parents walked him outside for a surprise. There stood a crowd of roughly 50 people, sounding whistles and singing, parting the way to reveal his very own train. While the noise of the crowd was initially overwhelming, it took just one lap for Danny to enthusiastically nod yes when asked if he wanted to take another lap.
“It is an amazing opportunity to see the family come together with the community that they’re a part of and see the magic that a wish can bring,” Abernethy said.
It was a moment that made the past six months come full circle for all involved. Smith and his son climbed aboard for a lap with Danny, and Davis proudly pushed the button to send the train on its inaugural run.
“The smile on Daniel’s face was priceless,” Koelzer said. “It made all this worth it—all the hard work they put into this, to see the smile on that little boy’s face was truly amazing.”
“I cried,” Davis admits. “That’s why I did it—to be able to pass along a blessing to a boy in need and be able to watch him smile.”
Smith, perhaps more than most gathered on that day, knew just how much this gift means.
“It’s hard putting into words to see there are still people out here who are willing to do something for someone they never met,” Smith said. “As a parent, someone giving all this money and all this time, and they don’t expect anything back—they just want to see a smile on your kid’s face. It’s amazing. That’s not even the right word. It’s a godsend.”
Jeanette and Joe said they could not express their gratitude. “
It means a lot that people would care for someone they don’t know,” Joe said. “It’s awesome.”
“Daniel attracts people,” Jeanette said. “He makes people pause and remember what’s important in life. There have been literally hundreds of people that have shown love to a little boy they’ve never met, and they have no idea what it means to our family.”
On this day, nothing mattered more than a little boy engineering a community to believe in the magic a wish can bring. When the day came to a close, the people gone home and his parents ready to tuck him into bed, Danny looked at this father and whispered, “Let’s go ride the train.”
And so they did.