Kenzie Bay was on a climbing trip with her family in Utah when she experienced her first flare of pancreatitis, her mother recalls. For the next two years, she would endure excruciating stomach pain, extended stays at Children's Hospital Colorado and absence from school at Ben Franklin Academy and SkyView Academy in Highlands Ranch.
“It controlled my life,” said Bay, a 16-year-old who finished her sophomore year online, as she sat beside her mother at Elitch Gardens in downtown Denver.
On June 12, Bay shared her story at an annual event hosted by Make-A-Wish Colorado, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children with critical illnesses. Every year, the organization partners with schools across the state for student-led fundraisers. Communities that top the list are invited to the theme park for “Wish Wednesday” as a way to say thank you.
This year, Mountain Vista High School collected $191,000, breaking a national record and covering the cost of 26 wishes. Collectively, the school and its feeder schools, Mountain Ridge Middle School and Summit View Elementary, raised $225,000.
“This wouldn't have been possible without the entire community,” said Sarah Grosh, development manager at Make-A-Wish Colorado. Douglas County, she said, is Make-A-Wish Colorado's largest supporter, typically bringing in one-third of funds raised statewide.
Bay's story is a testament to the organization's impact.
Before her diagnosis, Bay dreamt of attending the United States Air Force Academy to become a pilot, said her mother, Marci. That won't be possible, but she has her sights set on a new career path, in part, because of her wish.
In early June, Bay, along with her parents and younger brother, spent a week in Australia, where she went scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. She also bungee jumped, cuddled with a koala bear, fed a kangaroo and explored Daintree, the world's oldest rainforest.
“Giving her a trip to explore the ocean in Australia was beyond amazing,” Marci said. “Her newfound passion to scuba dive and take care of the coral reefs has lead Kenzie to someday become an aquatic vet.”
Today, Bay, who serves on the Make-A-Wish Youth Leadership Council, is figuring out life as a teenager. Surgery one year ago addressed her illness, though she experienced complications and still has some pain.
She spends her free time outdoors — hiking, climbing, taking photos. This fall, she plans on taking elective classes at Legend High School, which through fundraising helped grant her wish.
She will always remember Make-A-Wish, the community and sense of normalcy it created, and Australia, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that helped her family heal.
“It's so hard to find the words to describe the impact that trip made,” Bay said.
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