Originally created 05/24/00

13 children go on dream trip

Travis Hacker knows that dreams can come true. This year in Atlanta, Travis became an Olympian - he won a gold medal in bowling at the 2000 Special Olympics.

Early Tuesday, the 15-year-old from Augusta fulfilled another dream by taking his first trip to Disney World in Orlando.

Travis, along with 13 other children, was accompanied by five chaperones to spend the entire day with Mickey, Goofy and Donald Duck. The group of 19 was scheduled to return early today.

The Augusta chapter of The Sunshine Foundation provides a program, called Dreamlift, designed to grant wishes for chronically and terminally ill children such as Travis, who suffers from a learning disability.

Dreamlift was started in Augusta in 1988 by Rip Merhoff, now president of the Augusta chapter of The Sunshine Foundation. The Augusta chapter is the only Sunshine Foundation in Georgia. The first Dreamlift trip sent 183 children to Disney World. Now the foundation sends about 18-20 children every two years.

"We've helped over 300 children in Augusta since we started," said Woody Merry, vice president of the Augusta chapter.

The cost for trips is underwritten by organizations. NutraSweet held a golf tournament in September. Proceeds from the tournament, about $15,000, paid for the Tuesday's Disney trip.

Richmond County special education officials choose which pupils could participate.

About 21 children were selected for the trip, but seven had to cancel because of health reasons.

"The Dreamlift is done every two years," Mr. Merhoff said. "But we do grant wishes to kids every year."

The most common wish is going to Disney World or meeting a sports celebrity, but there have been a few unique wishes granted. One child went to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to look at airplanes. One child went hunting in Texas. The strangest wish to date was by a child who wanted a chicken coop and some chickens.

"This kind of work humbles you," Mr. Merry said. "I have healthy children. To grant a wish for a child who is chronically or terminally ill is giving back; it shows how grateful I am."

The circumstances surrounding these wishes, however, hit close to home.

"For some of these children," Mr. Merry said, "the wish is the last thing they do in their life."

Mona Hacker, Travis' mother, agreed.

"They're all very special kids," she said. "I believe they should go anywhere they want. They deserve to go all over the world."

Reach Albert Ross at (706) 823-3512 or ajrossjr@hotmail.com.


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