BY MATT KANE
DELANO, MN Cerebral palsy has sapped the strength from the arms and legs of Delano’s Kallon O’Neill, but the disease must have given a bit of a break to his facial muscles, as the 105-pound high school sophomore could lift a bus with the power of his smile.
That smile was at full strength and seemingly-permanent for a 10-day period in October, when Kallon, with his parents and two brothers on board for the ride on the Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas cruise ship, bobbed up and down on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The all-expenses paid vacation, which included a private-jet flight from St. Paul to Galveston, TX, and a private wheelchair-accessible shuttle to and from each airport, was a wish granted to Kallon and his family by Make-A-Wish Minnesota.
“It was really fun,” said Kallon last week, while sitting in the new atrium at the high school with his paraprofessional, Colleen Dzurik.
“You would have had more fun if...” said Dzurik, the conotation that he should have taken her with on the trip provoking a hard belly-laugh from Kallon. “We had our bags packed.”
It was Dzurik and Kallon’s former teacher Claire Austin who nominated Kallon and his family for the Wish.
“The family has been through a lot the last couple of years, with his surgery and Kallon being out of school for almost a full year,” she said. “He was missed by not only us but the students, as well. It is so good to see him better; getting him back in school and getting him strong again and learning again and joking around again. It was a much-needed break for the whole family.”
Kallon and his family were given a send-off party by his Make-A-Wish wish-granters, Karen Bateman and her daughter Ashley Bateman, Oct. 8. Also partying over the ship-shaped cake were Dzurik and Austin.
“When we first met with him, he was very shy,” said Karen Bateman, who receives a list of children waiting for wish interviews every Wednesday. “To see that smile on his face when we had the send-off party, when he knew he was going in a few days, melted my heart. You knew how happy he was to be able to do this.”
Less than a week after the party, on Friday, Oct. 13, the O’Neills were picked up at home and driven to the St. Paul Downtown airport, where they boarded a G5 jet and took off on their much-needed family vacation. The two-hour flight to Galveston went quickly, thanks to the flight attendant and the full service she offered.
“Talk about taking first-class,” Kristi O’Neill said with a laugh about the flight, which was given by an anonymous donor. “When we saw this plane, we were like, ‘Oh, my God, is that seriously for us.’ That was the cherry on the top, that flight.”
The family spent Friday night and all of Saturday in Galveston staring at the Gulf of Mexico through their hotel window, and, on Sunday, Oct. 15, the O’Neills boarded the cruise ship and set sail for the three-day cruise to Roatan, Honduras, where they arrived Wednesday, Oct. 18.
Kallon, twin brother Terron and mother Kristi spent that first day back on solid ground touring the streets of Roatan and being tourists, while dad, Jim, and oldest brother, Keegan, boarded another boat for a day of deep sea fishing, where the catch of the day was barracuda and tuna.
Liberty of the Seas took the O’Neills to Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico, Oct. 19, and, finally, to Cozumel, Mexico, Oct. 20, where Kallon’s specific Wish, to go to the beach and swim in the ocean, was granted.
As they are used to doing, the O’Neill’s got creative when it came to granting Kallon’s wish of swimming in the ocean. They turned a beach wheelchair into a water vessel, securely anchored to the sandy gulf floor by Jim, who stands at 6-foot-9.
“Of course, these beach wheelchairs are just for the sand, but not for Jim. Jim was like, ‘this sucker is going in the water,’” explained Kristi. “It kind of floated. We spent five hours that day at the beach. That was Kallon’s wish, the beach wheelchair and to be with his brothers.”
The smiling muscles of the entire family were continuously flexed as Kallon rode the calm waves of the Gulf of Mexico.
“It was fun and scary at the same time,” Kallon said of his time on the water.
The cruise back to the United States began Oct. 21 and the ship arrived back at Galveston Oct. 22. The next day, the O’Neill’s were back on that G5 jet full service, of course flying back to St. Paul.
“It was awesome. We had a really good time getting away. It had been awhile,” said Jim O’Neill. “Having him at a spot where he was in way better health, it worked. We had to put it off a couple times.”
Unable to chew and swallow food following spinal fusion surgery in January of 2016, the O’Neills battled at getting enough caleries into Kallon’s body soon after the procedure, when he was just 74 pounds. With the use of a feeding tube, Kallon’s weight is back up, now at 105 pounds, and, naturally, his energy has returned.
That energy was used continuously aboard the cruise ship by Kallon, who was treated like royalty as the ship cut across the water to the next destination. The family sat in the front row for three on-board ice shows and met each cast, and Kallon received a private tour of the ship’s bridge, courtesy of the ship’s captain.
There were also moments of normalcy on the ship, like the boys playing video games and relaxing in the pool under the stars while watching Monday Night Football.
“I liked going to the arcade and watching football with my brothers,” said Kallon, who corrected this reporter by pointing out that watching football from a pool under the stars is not a normal thing in the O’Neill household.
“Jim and I just let the three of them do their own thing. We didn’t check up on them, we just let them do their thing,” said Kristi. “Kallon loved going to the arcade and watching Keegan and Terron play air hockey and skee-ball.”
“The three boys were able to be together quite a bit without us,” Jim added.
The family vacation was well-deserved for the O’Neills, and came at a perfect time.
Following the nine-houar spinal fushion surgery at the beginning of 2016, Kallon spent 20 days, including his 14th birthday, in the hospital. His health had deterioriated to the point that Kallon was not able to attend his grandfather’s funeral that February, and he was not able to attend school the rest of his eighth-grade year. The trip this past October was snuck into the busy O’Neill schedule between Terron’s soccer season and the start of basketball for both Terron and Keagan.
“Make-A-Wish is a wonderful and amazing organization that granted my son his Wish after a difficult, at times bleak, and tough time after his spinal fusion surgery. The worst of it was on Kallon but the whole family suffered as well,” said Kristi. “We are so thankful and forever grateful to the kind and generous people at Make-A-Wish for all that they did to make Kallon’s Wish come true. We have memories of our trip to cherish forever. Make-A-Wish was a real blessing to our whole family.”
Dzurik, who Kallon did not take with on the trip, noted that Kallon was gushing about the experience for days after his return to school.
“He talked about it a lot. It was the trip of a lifetime for him,” she said, then motioning to a grinning Kallon. “We missed this smiley face.”
The cruise will be remembered by the O’Neill family forever, but it was not Kallon’s original wish. That original wish came before Kallon’s spinal fusion surgery. It was to meet Kobe Bryant and to attend a Los Angeles Lakers game in Los Angeles.
The complications from the spinal fusion surgery put Kallon’s wish on hold, and, to complicate things even more, Bryant retired at the end of the NBA season in 2016.
With meeting Kobe Bryant out of the picture, Kallon struggled to think of a new wish. Until, that is, he remembered something his family did together years earlier.
“He remembered our trip to Coronado, CA, in 2013, and the day spent on the beach and in the ocean with a beach wheelchair, and he just squealed with delight. So, he said he wanted to do that again. We could be on the beach and he could be with his brothers,” Kristi explained. “Wanting to try somewhere different, we decided on a cruise, with a beach wheelchair at one of the ports. So, that, and the fact that Keegan is a senior and will be off to college in less than a year, he wanted a family vacation.”
So, the wish-granting Batemans put their heads together again, and, with Make-A-Wish Minnesota pulling the strings in the background, the Wish moved from Kobe Bryant to the Liberty of the Seas.
“We were involved in (the initial wish) and then Kobe retired. With celebrity wishes, it can take a long time,” Karen Bateman explained. “Then, Kallon decided he wanted to go on the cruise. We had hurdles we had to overcome because of his inability to sit up in an airplane. Make-A-Wish was able to find somebody to fly them down there. Make-A-Wish made everything happen for them.”
That trip to California four years ago was the last family vacation for the O’Neill’s before October.
“To have Kallon’s Wish granted gave him and our entire family something to look forward to,” said Kristi. “This was our trip of a lifetime, we called it. Everybody was so wonderful.”
When Kallon is not splashing around in the Gulf of Mexico in a big boat during the trip of a lifetime, what he looks forward to most on a typical day is hanging out with friends, playing Playstation 4, and watching his brothers and classmates on the Delano playing fields.
During the volleyball and basketball seasons, Kallon, the Delano Tigers super fan, is practically in the action, sitting in his black-and-orange chair on the side of the court. And, of course, when a Tiger, especially brothers Keegan or Terron, knocks down a big jump shot or denies a drive in the lane, this proud super fan is flexing his Hurculean muscles, in the form of an ear-to-ear smile, of course.