“He has no right to be as happy as he is,” Cooper’s mom, Amber, says of her child’s happy outlook, “after everything that he’s been through …” – With a head full of curly, wild hair that enters the room before he does, Cooper is all smiles no matter the situation. Only two years old when he embarked on his wish, nobody wanted to see him lose that joy in his early years of hospital visits and therapy. Cooper never had the chance to grow up normally. He was eleven pounds born naturally – and born still. Despite everything, neither Cooper nor his mom gave up on his chance at life. Cooper miraculously survived thank to the doctor’s interventions, but was diagnosed with infantile cerebral palsy. They tried out a new technique on him, head pulling, which Amber jokes is “the cause of his outlook today.”
Even when just trying to play with other children his own age, he was bombarded with questions about his medical equipment, about what was wrong with him – he could never just play with the other children without going through the same list of questions. His two older siblings took to defending him with the same cheerful outlook Cooper displayed. “That’s where we blow him up like a balloon,” they would joke about children who would be too distracted by Cooper’s feeding tube. With his siblings always around to keep him from being overwhelmed by the childish curiosity of the other children, Cooper struggled to fit in but was never lonely.
Cooper loves to dress up, with every outfit rotating in stages every few weeks. He was in the middle of a pirate stage when he went on his wish experience, ready to conquer the high seas of Disney! His mom was the one to approach Make-A-Wish® , knowing the dancing and singing would be the perfect way to encourage his vibrant personality. People would even be dressed up in fun outfits just like him! Amber had no fear in requesting a wish, knowing the worst thing they could say to her was no. She wanted her child to be in a place that would encourage his happiness -- unlike the stark, endless walls of hospitals. When the family first embarked on the Make-A-Wish experience, Amber worried that she had made a mistake. That despite the feeding tubes, the seizure disorder, HIE, and microcephaly – maybe her kid just wasn’t sick enough. She felt guilty and worried about Cooper, as though his going on a trip was stealing a trip from another child. The experience, however, quickly made her rethink these worries. Cooper not only got to be in an incredibly uplifting atmosphere, but he got to do this with other kids just like him. Kids who had struggled with illnesses, recently or lifelong like him. Despite his young age, seeing other children just like him was a way of inclusion for Cooper. He didn’t have to explain himself to go play, he was simply accepted by the other children. Even his siblings got to see all the different ranges of illnesses in children and understand that there are many other children like their brother and how big the special needs community really is. Amber jokes that they’re not only Cooper’s protectors, but advocates for all the other children now too.
When they first decided on their experience, Amber worried constantly about the logistics of the trip. Yet, from arrival everything was thought of, down to the smallest detail. This thoughtful, caring environment was a complete contrast to the stress and worry that they were used to. Even the employees at Dunkin Donuts in the airport came running out with goodies when they saw Cooper’s Make-A-Wish shirt. Cooper felt important when people would see his shirt and just know without asking anything about him. They didn’t have to explain their family situation to anyone and were able to act like a typical family on vacation. “We didn’t have to think about anything,” Amber recounts, she could just let Cooper go where he wanted and enjoy himself for once.
Now five years old, Cooper is in kindergarten, going through therapy with that same cheerful outlook he is known for. Able to walk, eat, and talk on his own now, Cooper was never allowed to lose that joy he so shockingly held onto from birth. Even Cooper’s siblings had struggled with their brother’s illness, leaving a mark on them as he grew up. The trip to Disney allowed them to not have to worry about that, and to just be able to hang out like normal siblings. “People don’t understand the gravity of effect Make-A-Wish has on families,” Amber explains, “I didn’t even fully understand it and I had known someone who had been through an experience.” The Disney trip brought a joy back into their family, and Cooper’s mom can’t be thankful enough for the chance to have her son able to just act like a kid for once.