Wil Church’s Story by wish mom Melissa Church.
It seems wrong somehow to be telling Wil’s story for Give Kids The World (GKTW) because we have been so blessed in his outcome. That feeling takes me back to the beginning of our opportunity to visit GKTW through Make-A-Wish. There was some disagreement between my husband and me whether we should accept a wish since Wil’s prognosis was so favorable. We were in chemo rotation at St. Louis Children’s Hospital with kids and families who were really suffering and would be long-term. You could say that cancer gave us a one-year sentence with 10 years of probation, but then we would be done. Other kids would never see “done.” Wishes were for those families. So, we had some guilt about taking the gift at the outset.
Wil was diagnosed in 2001 with Stage I, Group I Rhabdomyosarcoma. His tumor was successfully resected, and his prognosis was good. The treatment was harsh, but nothing more than anyone else with cancer has ever received, and because of his staging, not nearly as bad as it could have been. It’s an old, old story to families in-the-know. For kids with his type of cancer, he had the best possible diagnosis. We just had to do the time. When we visited GKTW we were nearly at the end of Wil’s chemo protocol. He was anemic, depleted, and exhausted; Chris and I were just pushing on toward the end. But we had been in fight mode for a year. We were fighting against something we couldn’t control and couldn’t conquer in our own power. And we were fighting for something we also couldn’t control nor achieve by self-determination. Pretending every day that things were normal and trying to maintain normalcy for Wil’s sake was exhausting. The fear was lingering and exhausting. The hospital routine was exhausting. We were just at the end of ourselves and we needed some kind of reward for getting across the finish line, some bright spot, something hopeful and happy to fill up our empty tanks. GKTW did that for us. You might think GKTW is just for the kids, but that is not true. It was healing for each of us, and for our family. It really set us on the path to redeeming the whole wretched experience.
Our Make-A-Wish wish-granters saw us off to our adventure and GKTW volunteers were there to meet us at the airport. We did not have to arrange one detail. Waiting at our little cottage were welcome goodies, and… rest! We explored Amberville, drove the boats and chased the train, then had ice cream where another volunteer snapped our family photo. We took pictures at Old Elmer, rode the Enchanted Carousel, looked in the magic mirror, and made the wishing well burp. We marveled at all the STARS!!! And when we went back to the cottage, we got Wil’s star ready to go up! We ate inside a birthday cake! We took pictures with Mickey and Minnie and waded at the pool – too cold to swim! And on our last night at the Village, Mayor Clayton came to tuck Wil into bed.
One day on property, there was a moment by the carousel where an older gentleman volunteer stopped to chat with Wil. He was so happy; so generous with himself. I remember thinking then that when we got back home, I wanted to find a place like the Village where I could be like that for someone like Wil, and someone like me. We had seen such kindness and generosity in that year, like nothing we had ever experienced or even witnessed before, but that man at the Carousel pushed me over the edge from watching to moving. Shortly after we finished Wil’s protocol, I reached out to Ronald McDonald House St. Louis and became a weekly volunteer at the local house. Wil came with me often and carried the supply bucket to restock the bathrooms with soaps and shampoos, and then to play with the kids in residence. We served there for several years, while also pitching in for Make-A-Wish on some small projects and jumping in to other opportunities where they presented themselves. That has become a model I have continued to follow in the intervening years. Watching the volunteers at GKTW made a permanent change in my family. You can’t be touched by cancer without being marked in some way. Neither can you be touched with kindness and not want to leave that mark yourself.
Wil has grown up to be a fine young man. He was an honor student from early on, led a campaign against texting and driving in high school, played the trumpet in the local youth symphony and in his award-winning school concert and marching bands. He was active in his church youth group, led a pre-K Sunday school class, and was always a blessing to his family. In high school he discovered a love for film production and photography and decided to follow that career path. He interned at the church where he now works, produced the streaming service for his high school’s basketball team, then took some time to explore an opportunity with the media team for Razorback Football, traveling with the team to the Belk Bowl. He went to college on a full academic and service scholarship, produced an amazing portfolio of photography and film work, and graduated a semester early after accepting an early job offer in his field.
It was at University of Arkansas Little Rock that Wil met his now-wife, Grace Ann. Don’t let anyone tell you grades don’t matter – they met in their scholarship program! Grace Ann is now in her first year as a speech and language pathologist. The two were married in January 2021, under a silver lining in the COVID pandemic on the peak day of U.S. infections… no one attending the wedding got sick! It will be one to tell the grandkids! And aren’t we blessed to be able to look forward to that? Telling his story will be my pleasure because it got to be a long one! And we are so thankful that GKTW is part of his story. Thank you to GKTW for the way you invested in our lives!
Watch: The Power of Hope