Make-A-Wish Georgia grants 17-year-old boy's wish to visit Destin for a beach vacation
DESTIN — Jared Turner can’t have a normal 18th birthday.
As a baby, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that affect a person's ability to move and maintain balance and posture, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. He had brain damage, detached retinas and suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side.
Because of that, Jared can’t see much and doesn’t walk or talk — minus the occasional “Yes,” in the middle of church or another conventionally quiet space. He can only move his left arm and leg, and shift his head around.
While Jared can’t have what many would consider a normal 18th birthday celebration, his parents, Carlene and Jim Smith, are determined to give him the birthday he deserves.
“He can’t go on dates, he can’t drive a car, play video games or sports,” Jim said. “We’re just trying to make it the best (birthday) because he can’t do everything people take for granted.”
“We always try to do something special for him, but this especially,” Carlene added. “Eighteen is a big thing.”
Jared, his parents, his 12-year-old sister Megan and her best friend traveled from Whitesburg, Georgia, on Monday for a five-day vacation at The Islander Resort in Destin on behalf of Make-A-Wish Georgia to celebrate his birthday. Make-A-Wish Georgia is a chapter of the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes for children with critical illnesses to bring hope.
Jared couldn’t verbalize this specific wish, but his family knew it was what he would want.
While there are many things Jared can’t do, he can smile, he can laugh, and what he loves to do is swim — or, more accurately, float, Jim said.
“When he’s in the water, that’s the most freedom he has,” Jim said. “He’s either laying in the bed, in his wheelchair or if I pick him up and put him on the couch, but he’s still restricted every which way you look. He can’t run, jump, roll around, anything active. In the pool, he is weightless. He floats. He’ll splash the water and turn his head from side to side and try to drink the water, ‘No, don’t drink it.’ Then he’ll start laughing.”
Carlene applied Jared for Make-A-Wish Georgia a year ago. Although it was approved quickly, COVID-19 postponed their trip, she said.
“We’ve had a lot of changes from our original wish, but we’re like, ‘We don’t care. We just want to go have a vacation,’” Carlene said. “We’ve been on the edge of our seats, ‘How much longer?’ ”
Jared spent his first day in Destin enjoying the beach and the pool.
Jim steered Jared down the beach in a Sand Helper, a motorized beach wheelchair provided to them. Jared loved it, Jim said.
“The wind blows on his face,” Jim said. “His sensories are going wild with the smell of the ocean … I don’t want to sound cliché, but people who have different abilities taken from them — sight, sound — the others heighten.”
Jim has a special relationship with Jared, he said. He came into his life when Jared was 5.
“(Carlene) may have given birth and she can be loving him and giving him kisses, but I can walk in the room and say his name, and he’ll drop her like a bad habit,” Jim said with a laugh.
They visited The Gulfarium on Okaloosa Island on Tuesday and planned to take a sunset dolphin cruise in Fort Walton Beach on Jared’s official birthday Friday. Carlene is excited the cruise is exclusively for their family.
“They want to throw a birthday party for Jared, which I thought was so nice,” she said. “We don’t even know these people.”
Maggie Risinger, a front desk associate at The Islander, has gone “above and beyond,” for Jared, Carlene said. "She has been one of the best parts of the trip."
When Risinger found out Jared was visiting on behalf of Make-A-Wish Georgia, her mission was to make it the best birthday he has ever had.
“I was just extremely touched that out of everywhere that he could possibly go that they chose to come to Destin and that he was staying with us,” Risinger said. “As soon as the staff and the owners found this out, we wanted to make this wish as special as we could for him because we’re like a family. If I could make a parade for him, I would.”
With the help of condo owners, Risinger decorated Jared's family's condo with birthday balloons and streamers, provided a dolphin-themed birthday cake and a basket stocked with beach-themed goodies and Jared’s favorites snacks: Goldfish cheddar crackers and chocolate.
Risinger took things further, coordinating a family beach photo shoot and establishing a GoFundMe page to raise money to buy their family a new handicap accessible van. Their current one has no air conditioning and has recently become unreliable, she said.
The vacation not only has been a celebration for Jared, but also a reprieve for the family.
Taking care of Jared is a full-time job for Carlene. She has to make sure he is fed, has medicine and watch him in case he has a seizure, a regular occurrence.
Carlene and Jim combine forces to bathe Jared. Jim picks him up and holds him while Carlene cleans him. And Jared wears diapers, so they have to change him — again, a two-person job. Jared weighs more than 100 pounds, so Carlene can’t pick him up anymore.
“Even though we do have challenges, we just roll with it,” she said. “Try to make the best we can of everything.”
Megan helps, too. They call her Jared’s “little big sister,” Jim said.
“She doesn’t get to have a normal childhood, either,” he said. “She helps him like she’s the older sister. Very loving. Very affectionate.”
Traveling only magnifies the difficulties. It's not only difficult to plan a vacation financially on one income, but also difficult to find handicap-accessible arrangements for travel and stay.
The five-hour drive to Destin in a van rented out for them was a doable vacation for their family — and they haven’t been on one in three or four years.
“It’s amazing,” Carlene said. “We love the beach. We love the ocean; we all do. It’s so beautiful. And he’s happy and taken care of. That’s what matters.”
To help buy the Smith family a new van, visit gofundme.com/f/help-the-smith-family-buy-a-van.