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2018-08-01 / Up Close

Best Wishes

Local nonprofit sends those with special needs to Disney World
Maggie Anderson | Photos by Georgianna DeCarmine

Navigating the world with a child with special needs can be a daily struggle, but, says Jaimie Miller, that’s mostly because of the world.

“The challenges lie in the fact that the world is not easily designed for our children,” she says. “Our fatigue and exhaustion and challenges come from that, not our children themselves.”

But there is one place where that is not the case. “The Happiest Place on Earth” is just that for everyone who walks into the Walt Disney World Resort.

“A lot of time people have a tendency to talk to kids with special needs as if they’re babies,” says Miller. “But not at Disney.”

Seeing her daughter, Emma, who has Down syndrome, light up at Disney World was the inspiration to start Pixie Dust Wishes, a local nonprofit that sends families of children with special needs to “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Camryn Shomo, the third wish recipient, high fives Woody.Camryn Shomo, the third wish recipient, high fives Woody.

“They roll out the red carpet for kids with disabilities,” says Miller, who started the organization in January of 2017. “I wanted to do something for the special needs community in a way that I felt wasn’t being served in this area. I thought, ‘I want to do something to make the lives of kids happier.’”

Since its inception, Pixie Dust Wishes has awarded five trips to Disney, and a sixth recipient will be announced at this month’s second annual Race to Neverland 5K and Fun Walk fundraising event. The nonprofit provides recipients’ families with not only park passes but also airfare (or other means of travel), hotel accommodations, dining plans, stroller rentals — even cash for tipping and other incidentals. Each trip costs between $5,000 and $10,000, and that all comes from donations to Pixie Dust Wishes.

Jaimie Miller and her daughter, Emma, center, at Disney World with their family.Jaimie Miller and her daughter, Emma, center, at Disney World with their family.

Miller has been very involved in the local special needs community since the birth of her daughter, who is now 11. She put together Pixie Dust Wishes with the speed and knowledge of a mother on a mission. Eight months after starting the nonprofit, she and Emma announced the first wish recipient, Sofia Allen, at the inaugural Race to Neverland 5K held at Tom Tudek Memorial Park last year.

Sofia was diagnosed at the age of 3 with autosomal dominant optic atrophy (ADOA), which is an inherited disease that affects the optic nerves.

“It progressively deteriorates vision over time,” says her mom, Lindsey Allen. “She is one of the more severe cases as young as she was when she was diagnosed.”

Legally blind since she was 3, Sofia loves Disney princesses and leads the life of a typical 8-year-old.

“She can run and play like any other child, but it does come with its difficulties at times,” says Allen.

But when the family made an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World in January, their everyday worries and challenges melted away.

Sofia Allen, Pixie Dust Wishes’ first recipient, and her family at the inaugural Race to NeverlandSofia Allen, Pixie Dust Wishes’ first recipient, and her family at the inaugural Race to Neverland“Every single person who works there, from the wait staff to the characters, everybody is very accommodating and so happy all the time,” says Allen. “It makes it all the more wonderful.”
Highlights for Sofia included “any roller coaster” and meeting her favorite (at the time) princess, Ariel.

“It was one of the best experience of our lives,” says Allen. “It was so wonderful to see our kids with smiles on their face 24/7 and absolutely having the best time of their lives. Life can be hard. To be able to forget all of that for a week and have a happy-go-lucky child experience at Disney was amazing.”

But what the Allen family didn’t expect from their trip to Florida was a new support system at home.

“I think one of the main things we’ve gotten out of Pixie Dust Wishes is you realize how much everybody else in the community cares. A lot of times you feel very alone, just doing the day-to-day things for your child that most people don’t have to do. So seeing everybody coming together for your child or somebody else’s child, it makes you feel part of a larger family.” •SCM


Give a Wish

Know someone who deserves a trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth”? Pixie Dust Wishes accepts nominations of those with special needs from teachers, therapists, medical professionals or any other professional who works with the individual on a regular basis. All individuals with significant special needs who live in Pennsylvania are eligible. Send your nomination letter to info@pixiedustwishes.org.


Race to Neverland

The second annual Race to Neverland 5K and Fun Walk at Tom Tudek Memorial Park is set for Aug. 11. The event, which features a timed 5K but also a fun walk for families, a silent auction, arts and crafts, games and a raffle, is Pixie Dust Wishes’ main fundraiser. Special guest Sue Paterno will help kick off the day of fun. But perhaps the most popular part of the festival, says Miller, is the Disney costume contest.


“Last year, since it was our first time, we didn’t really know what was going to work, but that was really, really popular,” she says. “So we’re going to expand on that. I did hear a rumor that the Seven Dwarfs are coming to run the 5K!”

And even though it was the first year, last year’s Race to Neverland raised about $25,000, says Miller. “There was so much support from the community. It was fantastic.”

Just like last year, a big part of the event is announcing a wish recipient — the sixth for the organization in less than two years.

“Our goal for the first year was to just send one family by the end of the year,” says Miller, “so to significantly surpass that is really exciting.”

Sign up at pixiedustwishes.org.

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