EASTON — Liam Conklin received an early present for his sixth birthday on Saturday afternoon: a playset adapted to his special needs, but that his brother Connor can play on too.
About 25 family members and volunteers from Make-A-Wish Northeast New York spent a chilly day installing the four-piece playset in the Conklin family’s front yard. The playset has a swing that Liam can ride either strapped into the seat or on his wheelchair, a slide, and wheelchair-height bongo drum set and xylophone.
“Liam loves to swing and slide,” said his mother Heather Conklin. “They’re vestibular inputs and big motion.” Liam has almost no vision, but “he loves music,” his father Willis Conklin added.
Liam was born with a heart defect and lung problems, Heather Conklin said. He needed open heart surgery at four months. He was sent home in error and suffered massive brain damage, leaving him with epilepsy and in a wheelchair. He lost his right eye at age 1 ½ to retinoblastoma and has limited vision with the other. Liam is also unable to speak.
“People take for granted he doesn’t know what’s going on around him, but he’s far more aware than people realize,” his mom said.
Heather Conklin grew up in the Greenwich area and the family moved into her mother’s former home from Vermont about two months ago. They’ve looked for playgrounds that both Liam and Connor could enjoy.
“There’s not a lot of adaptive equipment playgrounds in the area,” Willis Conklin said. The few that they could find had been vandalized.
Heather Conklin’s sister Dawn Light had a son, Andrew, at Greenwich Central School who was in the same class as Justice White. White, now 19, took a Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World when she was five-years-old and sick with chronic kidney and liver disease. White and her mother Tiffany recommended that the Conklins contact the group.
“It’s been great,” Heather Conklin said. People tend to associate Make-A-Wish with trips to Disney World, but that wasn’t appropriate for a child with poor vision and a dislike of crowds. “We wanted something Liam could have and use,” she said.
The Conklins started working with Wish granters, as they’re called, in Vermont, then connected with the Northeast New York Chapter when they moved. Once they had permission from Liam’s medical team, “everything went quick,” Heather Conklin said. Scott Lilioa and Ray Gawlak helped them find a company with the right equipment.
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“They made an exemption for Liam when the project went over budget,” Heather Conklin said. Rather than take anything out of the playset or ask the Conklins to make up the difference, “they went ahead and covered it.”
“We could have spent the same amount of money on one trip,” Willis Conklin said. “(Liam) can have this for years to come.”
Justice White was one of the volunteers setting up the playset Saturday. She said she started fundraising for Make-A-Wish in 2009.
“I’ve raised more than $500,000,” she said. “One year I raised almost $50,000.” Most of that was by asking people to write letters to Santa Claus. Macy’s donates $1 to Make-A-Wish for each letter. She also participated for several years in Jump For Make-A-Wish, raising $1,000 from her own fundraisers so she could go skydiving.
Working with the Conklin family was her first experience as a Wish granter, White said. “Now I’m in the hands-on aspect,” she said, as she helped shovel sandy soil away from the new slide. White works full-time in the medical field and is taking classes at Bryant and Stratton towards a nursing degree.
This was the 1,900th wish granted by Make-A-Wish Northeast New York since its founding in 1987, said Mark McGuire, director of marketing and communications for the chapter. It grants 90 to 100 wishes per year in 15 upstate counties.
“If children can conjure it in their imagination, we can find it,” McGuire said. Wishes can be anything from a shopping spree to a trip to Europe. The average cost is $12,000. The family’s income isn’t a consideration, he said.
Children don’t have to have a terminal illness to qualify. Eighty percent, like White, live to adulthood, he said.
“It’s not a last wish but a life-long gift,” McGuire said. “We can’t do what we do without the generosity of donors and volunteers like the people you see out here today who will make Liam’s life that much more joyous.”