LOWER TOWNSHIP — Cancer survivor Peter “P.J.” Chwazik didn’t know exactly what to expect from his free five-day vacation in Cape May from the Kids Wish Network, but the bottlenose dolphins on the ferry ride over from Delaware were a nice touch.
Chwazik, 19, of Arnold, Md., was a special guest in the wheelhouse of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry vessel MV New Jersey on Wednesday morning when dolphins started jumping out of the water.
“I planned everything,” joked Jennifer Gasparovic, Chwazik’s personal wish coordinator for the Kids Wish Network.
The family wasn’t so sure it was a joke.
“It was about like they set it up,” said Chwazik’s mother, Beth Sluder.
Joking aside, the nonprofit Kids Wish Network is a serious way to add some fun to the lives of young people fighting a life-threatening illness. The Florida-based organization grants wishes to children ages 3 to 18, helping more than 73,000 children each year across the country. Chwazik’s wish was granted earlier this year, when he was still 18.
The family used to vacation in Cape May when Chwazik and his brother Corey, 15, were younger, but they had not been back in years.
Chwazik, who works as a sailing instructor and loves to surf, wanted a Cape May vacation so he could ride some waves.
Earlier this year, Chwazik was in the final months as a high school senior, getting ready to go to the University of New Haven to study architecture and graphic design, when he found out about the cancer in his spinal column. It was Ewing’s Sarcoma, a cancer of bone and soft tissue that would require emergency surgery and then months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
When Chwazik first heard the news, his immediate concern was taking his girlfriend to the senior prom.
“It’s all right. I got to go to the prom,” he said.
It was a difficult time, but after months of treatment there was some good news. The cancer is in remission or gone entirely.
“They don’t call it remission anymore. They call it NED for no evidence of disease,” Beth Sluder said.
“It’s good to be NED,” chimed in her husband, Chris Sluder.
There was more good news when the Kids Wish Network called to tell them about their Cape May vacation from July 29 to Aug. 1. Chwazik and his brother packed their surfboards on top of the family wagon and they were off to Lewes, Del., to catch a ferry boat.
“Cape May was my choice,” Chwazik said. “In Ocean City (Maryland), you can’t see the beach from the road because you have hotels in the way.”
In that summer between high school and college, the adult Chwazik wants to look at Cape May’s architecture, while the kid in him has some other ideas.
“I plan on dropping a few quarters in the arcade machines,” he joked.
The Kids Wish Network gave the family some spending money for that. They also reached out to the community to help the wish come true. The ferry donated its services and gave Chwazik a big bag of gifts. The Palace Suites Hotel on Beach Avenue in Cape May is donating accommodations. The vacation includes a dinner cruise on the water from a dock in Wildwood Crest and another meal at the Atlas Hotel.
The giving does not stop there. The organization will keep in contact with Chwazik over the years and can grant a second wish if necessary. It also grants funeral assistance when necessary.
The organization is funded by sponsors such as Wal-Mart and Publix Supermarkets but also has fundraisers and accepts donations. It has to raise enough not only to grant the wish but to include the child’s immediate family. The stated mission is “to infuse hope, create happy memories and improve the quality of life” for those granted a wish.
Gasparovic said each candidate for a wish is interviewed to find out their likes and dislikes. Each is assigned a wish coordinator. Wishes can include a celebrity visiting them in the hospital, a shopping spree, a cruise or a visit to a theme park.
“In P.J.’s instance, all he wanted to do was hang out on the beach and surf. He had childhood memories of Cape May. He’s the basic teenage boy,” Gasparovic said.
And the dolphins, they were just an added bonus.
Press of Atlantic City
Atlantic City, New Jersey