COLUMBIA, SC — Disney World has long been the destination of successful athletes who want to celebrate winning a major championship.
But, for 5-year-old Ciara Cooke – who suffers from Type 1 diabetes and epilepsy – it is the dream of a lifetime.
Monday, Ciara was surprised by a group of special friends – including USC football player A.J. Cann and other members of Gamecock athletics – with a pep rally for her before she left for Disney World on Tuesday.
Cann, a left offensive guard for the Gamecocks, was joined by USC kicker Elliott Fry and defensive end Devin Washington, along with USC cheerleaders and volleyball players.
Cann, who is 6 foot 4 and weighs 311 pounds, lifted Ciara effortlessly after she walked through a human tunnel the athletes made for her when she walked into the volleyball competition facility.
“For me to be her favorite player and for her to want to talk to me every day, and be around me every day, it’s a blessing,” Cann said. “Me making her day in the condition she is in, it’s a blessing; it’s amazing.”
Ciara was diagnosed with diabetes at age 2 and, a short time later, experienced her first seizure, which led to the epilepsy diagnosis. Her mother, Helen Cooke, said Ciara has had four seizures since being diagnosed and has been hospitalized six times for her illnesses.
But, her mother said, her health challenges don’t stop her from having a smile on her face every day.
“She takes it really well, she is happy as can be and never complains about it,” Cooke said. “She gets six to eight shots a day and we check her blood sugar levels 10 to 15 times a day. It’s a 24-7 job, but she is great about it.”
Ciara and Cann began their friendship during an equestrian meet, where Cann said Ciara just couldn’t stop staring at him.
“I think he was, like, really big,” Ciara said.
“She finally came and spoke to us and asked me questions the whole time,” Cann said. “So I guess she just fell in love with me the first time she saw me.”
From that moment forward, a brother-sister bond was created for Ciara and Cann that has lasted through her sickness.
Ciara also said she likes to play soccer and block goals, but when she isn’t doing that she likes to watch Disney cartoons.
Ciara’s favorite Disney cartoon is Doc McStuffins because “her heartbeat turns her toys alive.”
The Disney cartoon is about a girl who is able to fix her toys’ illnesses when they come to life after she puts on her stethoscope.
“I think that’s because Ciara goes through so much of that she enjoys that type of thing,” Cooke said. “It is a cartoon that relates to children who have been through a lot.”
Never mind the rollercoasters, which Ciara said she isn’t afraid of, the one thing Ciara said she is looking forward to when she goes to Disney World is to see Elsa, the princess from the recent Disney movie “Frozen,” because she wears Ciara’s favorite color, blue.
Cooke said the Kids Wish Network is among the best organizations because every child who qualifies for a wish will receive their wish.
So far, the Florida-based organization, established in 1997, grants nearly 200 wishes per year to children suffering from life-threatening illnesses around the county, according to organization spokeswoman Sarah DuPree.
“We have a small operation and a small staff, but we are still able to grant wishes for kids from every single state,” DuPree said. “Ciara’s wish coordinator became close with her and her family. She is a wonderful child.”
Reach Cahill at (803) 771-8305.