TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Four-year-old Daniel is the youngest of Jeanette and Joe Wood's six biological and five adopted children. He's full of energy, loves being outside and lives with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
The degenerative condition will likely shorten his life to his 20s, but Jeanette says she finds many blessings in being the parent of a terminally ill child.
"It's like being picked the most amazing beautiful flower - and then praying it doesn't wilt," she said. "We're enjoying every day with that beautiful flowering gift."
The family says Danny blossoms most when he's around trains. He's already visited more than 30 states, counting trains as they move along the highways. At home, toy train cars and tracks are never far from reach. A favorite outing for Danny is a visit to Gage Park, where he'll hop aboard their mini train with older brother, Sam.
A family care coordinator at Children's Mercy Hospital told Make-A-Wish Kansas about Danny, which launched a big idea - what if Danny had his very own train in his back yard to ride whenever he wanted?
Dr. April Abernethy, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Kansas, says the process actively began in January. Through contacts she's made over the years, she found a man named Paul Neudecker, who runs an Illinois-based company called Premier Works. He was selling a mini train and donated a large percentage of the cost to the project, even delivering it to Topeka at no charge.
However, time had taken its toll and the train needed a lot of work. Make-A-Wish approached Lance Smith, whose son previously had a wish granted, to talk to his boss at Walt's Auto Body Car Star for an unusual restoration challenge.
Dean Koelzer, owner of Walt's Auto Body, recalls agreeing to Lance's request to take on the project but getting his first look at the locomotive and wondering what they'd gotten themselves into! Still, he was willing to let his crew give it their best shot.
"It's a way for us to give back to the community," Koelzer said. "This community has been really good to us and there's not a better organization than Make-A-Wish."
With the centerpiece on track, Davis Electric wired for the electrical work and Trusted Choice Insurance donating money to help buy replacement pieces, Make-A-Wish and Danny's family led an army of volunteers - including real Army soldiers from Fort Riley and KU's Chi Omega-Lambda chapter - to lay the tracks, add a play area complete with fort, sand box and trampoline, and even build a depot. Lowe's and International Mulch helped offset some of those costs.
"We've had 15 businesses, clubs and associations involved with this, hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours," Abernethy said.
Danny, recovering from a recent hospital stay, had no idea what was happening in the backyard until a recent Saturday, when his parents walked him outside for a surprise. There stood a crowd of roughly 50 people, sounding whistles and singing, parting the way to reveal his very own train.
While the noise of the crowd was initially overwhelming, it took just one lap for Danny to enthusiastically nod yes when asked if he wanted to take another lap.
"It is an amazing opportunity to see the family come together with the community that they're a part of and see the magic that a wish can bring," Abernethy said.
It was a moment that made the past six months come full circle for all involved. Lance Smith and his son climbed aboard for a lap with Danny, and Ash Davis of Davis Electric proudly pushed the button to send the train on its inaugural run.
"The smile on Daniel's face was priceless," Koelzer said. "It made all this worth it - all the hard work they put into this, to see the smile on that little boy's face was truly amazing."
Jeanette and Joe said they could not express their gratitude enough.
"It means a lot that people would care for someone they don't know," Joe said. "It's awesome."
"Daniel attracts people," Jeanette said. "He makes people pause and remember what's important in life. There have been literally hundreds of people that have shown love to a little boy they've never met - and they have no idea what it means to our family."
On this day, nothing mattered more than a little boy engineering a community to believe in the magic a wish can bring. When the day came to a close, the people gone home and his parents ready to tuck him into bed, Danny looked at this father and whispered, "Let's go ride the train."
And so they did.
Make-A-Wish Kansas strives to grant wishes for any child with a life-threatening illness, not necessarily terminal. Information on the qualifications and nomination process can be found at http://kansas.wish.org. You also can find ways to support their wish-granting efforts. Their work is possible solely through donations and volunteer support.