The kid from Canada had never been to Disneyland — let alone ventured much away from his home in Kelowna, a city on Okanagan Lake in the southern interior of British Columbia, Canada.
So when Liam McGrath, 12 — a full-blown “Star Wars” fanatic — got off Space Mountain during his recent visit to the Anaheim theme park, his assessment of the space-themed, indoor roller-coaster ride was perfect:
“It was a mix between awesome and amazing,” Liam said.
Those words also could apply to how dozens of deputies and other employees of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department felt after spending a day with Liam and other special-needs kids who flew in for a whirlwind Disneyland visit Dec. 9 in an annual event called DreamLift.
For many of the 71 kids — some with severe physical disabilities, some battling terminal illnesses — it was their first time away from their families and first time on an airplane.
“As soon as she got on the plane, she was saying, ‘I love this! I love this!” said Pat Barton, a firefighter from Kelowna and volunteer escort for Kaitlyn Cone, 8, who has a hearing disability.
For many of the participating OCSD volunteers, each of whom was teamed up with a kid as well and a medical specialist from Canada, the day served as a priceless reminder of the benefits of giving — as well as sharing some love and joy with young boys and girls whose lives have been difficult.
“I like to volunteer and I love Disneyland, so this is a great chance for me to enjoy both,” said Laura Rauschmayer, a forensic technician in the OCSD’s Crime Lab.
Rauschmayer spent the day with Kaitlyn.
DreamLift is an annual collaboration between the Orange County Sheriff’s Advisory Council, OCSD volunteers and the Sunshine Foundation of Canada, which fulfills the dreams of chronically ill, seriously ill, physically challenged and abused children ages 3 to 18 whose families cannot fulfill their requests due to the financial strain that their children’s illness causes.
So many OCSD employees sign up to volunteer for the December event that there’s a waiting list to be selected, said Marilyn MacDougall, executive administrator of the Orange County Sheriff’s Advisory Council and chief organizer, for the OCSD, of the day.
OCSD Capt. Tom Behrens has been participating in DreamLift for several years and has travelled to Canada to help in fund-raising efforts there.
This year, Papa John’s International Inc., which has five locations in the Kelowna area, stepped up as major sponsor of the trip, which comes at no cost to the children and their families.
“The great thing about this event is watching the kids absolutely light up once they’re here,” Behrens said. “They love it and talk about it for years and years to come.”
It’s an exhausting but extremely fulfilling and unforgettable experience for the kids, who with their escorts began the day with a 4 a.m. trip to the airport for the 2½- hour flight to John Wayne Airport.
The 71 kids and 86 volunteers arrived in Orange County mid-morning on the chartered plane. OCSD volunteers were waiting to greet them. Everyone then took buses to Disneyland where they spent about eight hours.
The kids and their Canadian escorts then flew back home and were in their own beds around midnight.
In addition to fun, DreamLift is about independence and freedom. For many of the young participants, it’s their first time away from mom and dad.
Liam, who is being raised by a single mother, had a brain stem tumor that was removed in 2012 followed by chemotherapy in 2014, said Carley Leboldus, R.N., Liam’s nurse. A recent MRI revealed the tumor area now is stable, she said.
Liam was paired with Deputy Robert Pequeño, a return volunteer for DreamLift.
Pequeño has experience with special-needs children.
On July 1, 2011, his son, Jimmy, then 18, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a single-car accident. Jimmy now is 22 and is being cared for by his family in their Lake Forest home.
“This is all about the kids,” Pequeño said. “I’m hoping my son will someday be able to come here and enjoy this.”
After Liam couldn’t find his wallet with $100 for souvenirs, Pequeño dipped into his own pocket to the tune of about $250 so Liam could buy souvenirs for himself and his mother and father.
Liam later found his wallet. Pequeño told him to keep the cash because, he figured, his mother could use it.
One of the kids enjoying her day at Disneyland was Torie Marie Foort, 8, escorted by Danielle Macfarlane, her certified education assistant in Canada, and the OCSD’s Martin Vaca, a lead forensics specialist.
“The bus ride so far has been the most exciting thing for her,” Macfarlane said of Torie as the two entered Disneyland. Tories was diagnosed, at 9 months, with stage 4 of the highly malignant and rare brain tumors glioblastoma.
After three months and three rounds of very intense chemotherapy, an MRI showed the cancer was growing and doctors decided it would be best to stop treatment, said Torie’s mom, Cheryl.
Torie was expected to live only another two to three months.
But instead of declining, Torie began thriving.
Six months later, another MRI showed a large mass. After surgery, the tumor was sent to pathologists around the world who were curious what they would find.
Torie’s mass in her brain came back as a stage 1 PXA, a benign tumor.
“Torie was called an incredibly unusual case,” Cheryl Foort said. “We called it a miracle.”
Torie has been cancer free for five years.
At Disneyland, Torie’s large eyes stared in wonder during the Jungle Cruise ride.
“I want to go swimming,” she repeatedly said.
Torie loved “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” ride, but wondered: Where’s Christopher Robin?
Torie’s favorite ride of the day, not surprisingly, turned out to be Splash Mountain.
This girl loves water.
In a letter to the OCSD after the Dec. 9 DreamLift, Krista Minnice, national programs manager for the Sunshine Foundation of Canada, thanked the deputies and members of the agency’s professional staff:
“(Your) support and dedication were an essential part of making the day a dream come true,” Minnice wrote. “The Sunshine DreamLift would not be what it is without the amazingly wonderful volunteers who we work with at the Orange County Sheriff`s Department.
“They have adopted The Sunshine Foundation as part of their family and in doing so, have taken us under their wings to ensure that every experience with them is a positive one.”
Behrens, the OCSD captain, said he would be back next year.
It’s easy to see why.
“We have a lot of volunteer opportunities (at the Sheriff’s Department),” Behrens said, “but this feels the best. Being able to help kids realize their dream of going to Disneyland? It doesn’t get much better than that.”