WESTFIELD, NJ — The gift came as a surprise, but it was a wish come true for 8-year-old Westfield resident Gavin Callow.
Gavin and his family went to the Australia Zoo in January as a present through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Gavin was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a type of cancer that invades the blood and can spread to the liver, spleen and lymph nodes, in December 2016.
During the trip, Gavin got to be a zookeeper, a job he’s wanted to do since he’s been inspired by an Australian crocodile hunter on television. His child life specialist Kelly Blanchette helped him brainstorm his wish.
“It was really so emotional because we hadn’t been anywhere in two years,” said Gavin’s mother Carolyn, who said that that the family was unable to go on other vacations because Gavin was too sick to go.
“It’s amazing the excitement that it puts into a little person,” Carolyn said.
Gavin goes to The Valerie Center in the Goryeb Children’s Hospital for outpatient treatments, which is where the family learned about the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation is a nonprofit that allows children with critical illnesses to experience a unique activity, event or trip they may not normally do in their everyday lives. Experiences such as Gavin’s day to be a zookeeper are meant to provide a child and his family with a fun experience during his time of sickness and healing.
The organization grants a wish to children ages 2 1/2 to 18 who are usually referred to Make-A-Wish by a physician, nurse, social worker, child life specialist or their parents. The Make-A-Wish New Jersey chapter celebrated its 35th-anniversary last year and has granted 10,000 wishes to children.
“We believe that a wish experience can be a game-changer,” said Michael Dominick, director of communications for Make-A-Wish New Jersey. “It inspires us to grant wishes that change the lives of the kids we serve. Wish kids are not necessarily terminal. Many of our wish kids overcome their medical conditions and go on to lead strong, healthy lives.
“Families often share with us that the wish experience played a vital role in their treatment process,” Dominick said.
As for Gavin, the effort to send him to Australia was an all-hands-on-deck one from everyone from the organization to his family to the Westfield mayor and police chief.
“I was incredibly nervous,” said Gavin’s father Andrew, who was concerned that his son could get sick.
But once Jan. 15 came, Gavin, his parents and his siblings Tristan, 12, and Duncan, 11, were all ready to go. Mayor Shelley Brindle and Police Chief Chris Battiloro visited Gavin and his family at their home the morning they left for the trip.
“This is the best day of my life,” Gavin said as he left for Australia.
The 15-day trip included time to stroll through Brisbane, the country’s capital, time to relax on the beach, and two days at the Australia Zoo, where the weather was 88 degrees.
During his time at the zoo, Gavin got to be the zookeeper for a day and experienced one-on-one encounters with the animals. He got to meet and pet a white rhinoceros, feed a giraffe and hold a python.
“Gavin learned about the wombat,” said Gavin’s father, about the animal which looks like a small bear with small legs and has a pouch for holding its babies.
“Gavin had a ton of questions about the animals,” noted his mother.
They learned that wombats live in burrows, which are underground tunnels. Since they have no nerves in their backsides and cannot feel anything, Andrew explained, they use their backsides facing out to block their burrows.
The family also got a private tour of the zoo and met all the zookeepers.
“Hopefully when he’s well we’ll visit the zoo again,” Andrew said.
Gavin is currently cancer-free but needs to undergo chemotherapy for another 13 months until doctors can officially say the cancer is gone. Because of the treatments, his body can be compromised at times, his dad explained.
When he’s not visiting the zoo or at school, Gavin enjoys playing with Legos and with board games and watching Beat Bobby Flay and Bindi Irwin on the Animal Planet. Irwin is an Australian conservationist and daughter of the late conservationist Steve Irwin.
“I love Legos. I played with them when I was in the hospital,” Gavin said, noting that the Star Wars Millennium Falcon set is one of his favorites.