Digest>Archives> February 2000

Indiana Boy's Wish Comes True

By Tiffany Powell


Nine-year-old Justin O'Brien is fascinated with ships and the sea. He grew up hearing sea stories and looking at family photographs of lighthouses in the Pacific Northwest. Yet the Indiana boy had never seen the ocean.

He always pleaded for his mother, Vicki O'Brien, to recount the time when she was a lighthouse keeper at the New Dungeness Lighthouse, near Port Angeles, Wash., from 1985 to 1986. She was one of the last keepers to sign the 100-year-old captain's log, which was donated to a local museum.

When the Make-A-Wish Foundation called to grant him his dream, Justin's first thought was not a trip to Disneyland, but to become a lighthouse keeper like his mother once was.

Last winter, Justin's twin sister Michelle called Make-A-Wish Foundation, a non-profit organization that grants wishes to children who live with life-threatening illnesses, to submit her brother's name. "I said that my brother is always sick and I thought he'd have a good time with whatever wish he picked," Michelle said.

Justin was diagnosed at birth with immotile-cilia syndrome, a rare chronic lung disease with symptoms similar to those of cystic fibrosis. "He was born blue and couldn't breathe on his own," his mother said. His cilia function improperly, bringing microorganisms into his lungs and causing recurring infections. "Last year he was in the hospital more than he was at home," Vicki said.

After his doctor called and also submitted Justin's name, the Make-A-Wish Foundation called Justin and his family at home in Indiana to give them the good news.

"When he first told me he wanted to be a lighthouse keeper I said 'no way, you'll have to think of something else.' We thought it was too big a wish," Vicki said. "But the Foundation told us 'whatever his wish is, you let him tell us, no matter how big you think it is.'"

The Make-A-Wish Foundation called its new volunteer, Lt. Marshall Branch of Air Station Port Angeles, Wash., to enlist his help. Branch eagerly began planning Justin's wish along with another volunteer.

The wish came true and after six months of preparation Justin and his family traveled more than 2,000 miles from North Manchester, Ind., to the Point Wilson Lighthouse near Port Townsend, Wash.

"His mom told me he normally does not talk about his future, but he has been talking about this (trip) for months," said Chelyn Briand, a Make-A-Wish coordinator in Seattle.

But the trip across country, in a motor home rented by the foundation, was not an easy one. He had to be put on continuous oxygen when the family crossed over the Colorado Rockies.

The family arrived in Port Townsend two weeks later, where they stayed at a campground near the Point Wilson Lighthouse, which was established in 1879 and became part of the Coast Guard in 1939.

The next morning, the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Osprey, a patrol boat stationed in Port Townsend, took the O'Briens for a cruise to the lighthouse and back. The crew gave Justin an Osprey hat and took him for a ride on the cutter's small boat. Master Chief Bill Sheretz, Osprey's officer in charge, taught Justin how to steer the 87-foot cutter.

"This is the best job we do, other than saving lives," Sheretz said.

Later in the day, the Osprey's crew hosted a barbecue lunch for the O'Briens at the Point Wilson Lighthouse. The crew presented Justin with an official lighthouse keeper certificate, courtesy of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

"He is ecstatic about this whole wish, we have never seen him this happy," said his teary-eyed mother.

As the sun set on the lighthouse, Justin began his rounds. The highlight of his day came when Justin radioed "lighthouse operations are normal" to the Osprey's watch stander.

But Justin's wish didn't end there.

The next day, Air Station Port Angeles crew members woke up at 5 a.m. to present Justin with his own flight suit and aviator glasses. Commanding Officer Capt. Stewart Gingrich then flew Justin and his father to the remote New Dungeness Lighthouse, where the rest of the family was already waiting.

His mother and three sisters, Ashley, Michelle and Jennifer, sprinted out to hug Justin, who was flushed with excitement after his first helicopter flight.

"He must have said 'awesome' or 'cool' about 100 times on the flight," Branch said. "I think this will be something he'll never forget."

The family spent the rest of the day touring the 147-year-old lighthouse. Justin's older sister Ashley, 13, examined her baby footprints pressed in the concrete at the base of the flagpole, a remnant from the past. Volunteers for the New Dungeness Lighthouse Society served lunch on the lighthouse lawn, where the family reminisced about their trip.

"They (Make-A-Wish Foundation) have never seen so many people work together to make a wish come true," Vicki said. "The Coast Guard and Make-A-Wish have been incredible."

"I thought I would just be going out to the light, but they have made it more," Justin said.

Even though Justin's future is unknown, that doesn't stop him from living every day to its fullest. Justin's plans are to return to his Midwest home, where he will rearrange his collection of ships to make room for the memorabilia he gathered during his Make-A-Wish visit to the Northwest.

By Tiffany Powell, Petty Officer Second Class, USCG

Photos by Jaime Bigelow, USCG

This story appeared in the February 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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