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5-year-old's wish to pet a penguin put on hold, but Make-A-Wish Nebraska says public can help
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5-year-old's wish to pet a penguin put on hold, but Make-A-Wish Nebraska says public can help

The Whisler family has become accustomed to uncertainty. Childhood cancer, they said, forces you to take things one day at a time.

Their son Colton, now age 5, was diagnosed in January 2018 with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that develops in soft tissues and bones.

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Colton underwent two years of treatment at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, but during his 55 chemotherapy treatments and eight rounds of radiation, he had something to look forward to.

He was going to get to pet a penguin.

“He’s just always loved penguins,” said Colton’s mother, Stephanie. She said Colton has a favorite stuffed penguin, and he often speaks about the day he’ll get to pet a real one.

And, thanks to Make-A-Wish Nebraska, he was going to get to pet that penguin at SeaWorld in Orlando. After Colton showed no sign of disease this January, the trip was scheduled and they planned to leave on May 22: Colton’s sixth birthday.

Then, uncertainty struck again, this time in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions and bans on large gatherings have forced Make-A-Wish Nebraska to postpone Colton's trip and others like it.

For the Whislers, the news stung, but they’re glad they’ll be able to go eventually. 

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“It’s disappointing,” Stephanie said, “but after dealing with the cancer diagnosis we’re just lucky that he’s healthy and that we’re in a position that it can be delayed.”  

Because Make-A-Wish has had to postpone 20 family trips, the organization has a new program that aims to make the wait a little easier.

Emily Marston, marketing and events manager for Make-A-Wish Nebraska, said Messages of Hope is a new initiative that encourages the public to make social media posts of written or recorded messages of inspiration and support to children who have had their Make-A-Wish trips postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The organization hopes people will tag @MakeAWishNE on Twitter and @makeawishnebraska on Facebook and Instagram, and they also request people use the hashtag #WishesAreWaiting. Some of the messages will also be featured on official Make-A-Wish social media accounts. Make-A-Wish also asks that participants consider making a donation to help prepare the organization for pending wishes when travel can resume.

Marston said that even with the new initiative’s support this will be a disappointing time for affected families.

“It’s a difficult situation all around,” she said. 

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Because the program has just begun, Stephanie said, the family has not seen any of the messages yet, but they would appreciate people expressing their support. 

“Just because we’re done with treatment, the fight’s not over,” Colton’s father, Derek, said. 

Derek said the trip has been important to the family, and they’re still looking forward to when they can eventually go. 

“It was pretty instrumental in keeping his spirits up,” he said. 

Stephanie said Colton's illness has taught their family to take things one day at a time and not take anything for granted. 

“I think we’ve really learned to go with the flow,” she said. 

Colton’s mantra has been “There ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy,” Stephanie said, and they’re determined to make sure this change doesn’t either. 

But, for now, Colton is going to have to wait to pet that penguin.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or

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