CUBA CITY—A wish granted for one child sent his entire family on a dream vacation to Alaska. Brady Heller, the son of Kristal and Ben Heller of Cuba City, was granted a three-part wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation: pan for gold, see a bear and catch a fish as big as himself.
Kristal and Ben have five children: Kylie, 10, Breanna, 9, Brady, 7, Bralyn, 5 and Bailey, 3. When Brady was 3 years old, he was diagnosed with Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic connective tissue disorder that is caused by a defect in the protein called collagen. He lacks connective tissue to hold parts of his body together. Brady spent several weeks last summer in the hospital for a perforated bowel due to the disease. He now has a catheter and is unable to participate in high impact activities. It is something he will live with the rest of his life and the disease willprogress as he gets older.
This progressive disease qualified him for the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s wish granting program, which was fulfilled earlier this month.
The process began with a phone call to the Make-A-Wish Foundation from Betty Wubben, Ben’s aunt. Wubben had a daughter who was granted a wish at age 8 and passed away at 22 years old. Now she helps sponsor the wishes of other youth.
Make-A-Wish called the Hellers in May to get the process started.
Brady received a token for one wish and was given a coloring/activity book to give Make-A-Wish ideas of what he was interested in. He was asked to draw what he wished for and dreamed about. One week later, they were discussing dates for a trip to Alaska.
Ultimately, they granted him a three-part wish: to dig for gold, catch a fish as big as himself and see a bear. His family got to experience the entire adventure with him.
“They included all of our kids for everything,” Kristal said. “It made them all feel like they were a part of it, too. They even had gift bags for all of them before we got on the plane. It was so nice of them.”
The family departed on Aug. 13 and returned on Aug. 21. Two of those days were specifically for travel with seven days spent exploring Alaska.
“They expedited the whole thing,” Kristal said. “We told them we couldn’t go in June and July because of sports and they wanted us to go before the end of the tourist season in September to ensure we were in time to enjoy good fishing.”
Ben and Kristal said there were so many special moments throughout the entire experience. The Cuba City FireDepartment and Rescue Squad paraded the family out of town, something their limo driver, who has been transporting Make-A-Wish families for 10 years, has never seen.
Make-A-Wish had given Brady a letter that explained his situation and when they boarded their first plane in Madison, he gave the letter to the flight attendants. The pilot invited Brady and his siblings to tour the cockpit.
Before leaving Alaska, the Heller family stopped at the Girdwood Fire Department to snap a photo. It happened to be the fire department’s annual training event and they let the Heller family explore their equipment that was out.
“When people found out we were a Make-A-Wish family, they were all so generous,” Ben said. “It was really something.”
They arrived at their cabin their first night in Alaska and the owners went above and beyond to make sure the Heller family was taken care of. They booked the family’s glacier cruise, left gifts, made dinner and had a cake so the family could celebrate a birthday together.
“I can’t say enough good about the foundation and the work they do,” Ben said. “If anyone is looking for an organization to support, this would be my recommendation. Seeing firsthand what they do for families, they really do make dreams come true for kids and their families.”
Brady was able to see bears in the wild and in a wildlife preserve.
On the way to gold panning, there was a dead moose along the road with a sign that said a bear was in the area to feed on the carcass. After leaving the mine, they were able to see the black bear and watch it near the road for a while.
The family also visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where they were able to safely view moose, buffalo, bear, sea otters and more wildlife native to Alaska. They even watched a sea otter lying on its back eating a crab in the water.
Other notable moments included driving through a 2.5-mile tunnel through a mountain. They also took a glacier cruise in Whittier and saw two glaciers calving. A piece of the glacier was brought on board for the children to touch and see up close. While fishing, they were able to see a mountain goat on a very steep mountain pass.
On Aug. 18 the family was supposed to go fishing for Brady’s wish, and then he and his dad were going to go again the following day. However, the boat wouldn’t start for the family’s fishing trip.
“We tried calling everywhere, but we couldn’t schedule anything on our own,” Kristal said. “There was a salmon derby going on that weekend and everything was booked. We called our representatives at Make-A-Wish and told them what was going on. They said they would call back in a little bit. Ten minutes later she called back and found us a 5 a.m. charter for the whole family on Saturday. Brady and Ben were able to go out again Saturday afternoon just the two of them.”
Kristal said the fishing trip was amazing.
“Brady won the biggest catch of the day for our boat and they even let him drive the boat,” Kristal said. “They really made him feel special.”
After Brady and Ben left for their separate fishing adventure, Kristal learned that their morning fishing trip was actually not scheduled to be out that day.
“When Make-A-Wish called and talked to the office, they explained our situation and how this was Brady’s wish to go fishing,” Kristal said. “The woman in the office didn’t have any openings, but it was her husband’s day off and she scheduled him to take our family out. They were able to fill the rest of the boat with people in similar situations. They heard it was for a Make-A-Wish family and they found a way to help us out.”
The Heller family was able to bring home 50 pounds of fish fillets, which were cleaned for them at the docks. The fish included halibut, salmon, cod and rock fish.
“Brady wants to go back,” Kristal said. “He says he wants to be a deck hand and become captain of a ship. The deck hand works hard. They put all of the bait on for us and filet the fish.”
They spent three nights in Girdwood and three nights in Seward. Temperatures ranged from 50s to 70s and it rained four of the seven days.
“Everything is very expensive in Alaska,” Ben Heller said. “We were covered on everything, though. They took care of us in every aspect. We wouldn’t have been able to afford a trip like this for our family. We appreciate all that Make-A-Wish has done for us to give Brady his wish.”