St. Thomas woman spearheads effort to give a sick child a dream vacation
Published: October 10, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Baylee Wheeler, 6, turned her cheek for Omar, a 325-pound sea lion on Wednesday.
Omar, with golfball sized eyes and tiny flaps for ears, lifted his wet, whiskered muzzle.
Wheeler squealed as the lumbering 9-year-old creature kissed her.
Wheeler is visiting St. Thomas with her family from Jamestown, Ky., this week.
She is a petite, healthy-looking girl who wore pink sneakers and colorfully beaded braids on Wednesday, though she is not always as healthy as she looks. She suffers from a life-threatening disorder known as natural killer cell deficiency, which she was diagnosed with about two years ago.
The disorder is one that is inherited and means the patient has low or absent levels of a certain type of white blood cell called a natural killer, or NK, cell.
NK cells help the immune system fight against disease and infection. These cells recognize and destroy body cells that have become infected with viruses or cancer.
Wheeler also has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which is a group of inherited disorders marked by extremely loose joints, hyperelastic skin that bruises easily, and easily damaged blood vessels.
Both have led to symptoms of perpetual aching and tiredness that Wheeler has endured since before she was even diagnosed.
In an effort to help Wheeler and her family take a break from worrying about her disorder, a local good samaritan, Mary Falk, decided to help her by organizing the vacation of Wheeler's dreams.
"I wanted to teach my daughter, Emilie, the importance of getting involved and having faith in giving back to someone less fortunate," Falk said. "My daughter is 5 years old, and so I thought helping someone close to her age would intrigue her, and it did in more ways than I could have imagined."
Falk started looking online for ways to help someone less fortunate and found Wheeler on her Facebook page that her family had set up for her, "Prayers for Baylee."
Falk saw that Wheeler was on a two-year wait list for an organization that hoped to eventually grant her a wish.
Falk thought that the wait was unnecessary if she herself could help Wheeler.
"I asked her if she wanted to come to St. Thomas," Falk said.
Falk turned to both local organizations, and nationwide ones. She looked to the Wish Upon a Hero Foundation for help fundraising, and eventually to local organizations when she was drawing up the plans for Wheeler and her family.
It all started to come together, and this week, Falk saw it all fall into place.
Wheeler arrived on Saturday with her father, Matthew Wheeler, Sr.; mother, Crystal Wheeler; brother, Matthew Wheeler, Jr.; and aunt, Tresa Helton, for their all-expense paid trip.
The family, none of whom have ever flown on a plane before, arrived at King Airport, where they were retrieved by a limo, or "limbo" as Baylee calls it. The limo, courtesy of the Marriott, then took them to stay at a Marriott's Frenchman's Cove timeshare, courtesy of Natalie Graugnard Himmel and her family, who are off-island.
Marriott also donated funding toward the trip, as well as several meals and the ride in the limo. The family is also going to see fire dancing, go on a sailboat and snorkel at the beach.
Coral World donated their time on Wednesday, allowing the Wheeler family to not only kiss the sea lion, but also play ball with him and rub his belly.
"He let him give me a high five," Baylee Wheeler said, noting that it was her favorite part of her experience with Omar.
Wheeler also was able to feed sea turtles lettuce and see some of the other sea creatures that she otherwise only has seen in books or on television.
"It's something we never would get to see," Crystal Wheeler said.
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.