- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

A year to the day after she buried her son, Joanie Halgrim rode in a minivan down a rocky dirt road not far from the airport in Nairobi, Kenya.

The van stopped in the midst of some bleak gray apartment blocks. She and the other travelers got out and entered an austere concrete block building. In a week’s time it would be a home to unwanted children.

As she walked around the dusty interior of the orphanage last month, deep feelings welled up inside Mrs. Halgrim. On the second floor, she found a balcony and walked outside to be by herself. And she started to cry.

She thought about the many times she had prayed for a miracle when her son, John, was sick. She realized that maybe now she was getting it.

It was a year and a half before, in April 2007, when two women came to the Halgrim house in Fort Myers, Fla. “Think of me as your fairy godmother,” Sue Fenger told John Halgrim, 15.

She was a volunteer from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the charity that helps dreams come true for children with life-threatening ailments. John, 15, was a boy with a time bomb in his brain.

“I’ve been thinking about this,” John told her.

He had considered a trip to the Bahamas after hearing about an opulent resort called Atlantis, where guests get to swim with dolphins. But as John’s illness intensified, a different idea came to mind. “I want to stop the hunger in Africa,” he told Mrs. Fenger. “I want to open an orphanage in Africa.”

John was an ordinary child who believed steadfastly in God and faith and still, somehow, miracles. And he believed he would eventually be healed, that this thing in his brain was put there so he could do something important. And this, he decided, was important.

The crushing headaches began in early 2006, around the time John turned 14. His mom insisted on an MRI. The radiologist who performed the procedure in March 2006 showed John’s parents a black spot in the middle of the image of John’s skull.

A few weeks later, doctors at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis told John’s parents that their son had a malignant tumor on his brain stem that was impossible for surgeons to remove without damaging his brain or killing him.

Odds of survival were long. But John and his family thought he could beat it from the start. He spent six weeks at St. Jude with his mom for radiation and chemotherapy.

Before he got sick, John went to church most Sundays with his family. He acknowledged that something happened to him when the cancer showed up. “I learned I needed to change my life,” he wrote in the journal he started keeping. “I learned I needed to live my life through God’s eyes and not my own.”

John thought about that at St. Jude when he learned that every child with cancer gets a wish from the Make-A-Wish people. Back home, he bugged his mother for months to call Make-A-Wish so he could tell someone about how he wanted to help children in Africa.

But his parents didn’t want to hear about it. Calling Make-A-Wish seemed like giving up.

The radiation and chemo seemed to keep the tumor in check for a while. Then in April 2007, a year after the initial diagnosis, John started seeing spots. Doctors determined that the tumor was growing again.

Meanwhile, a doctor’s referral put John on the Make-A-Wish radar. The boy’s health was getting worse.

One person praying for the boy was Orlando Cabrera, a pastor at Summit Church, who asked one day if he could come to the house to pray with John. During the visit, John explained how he wanted to help children in Africa. Mr. Cabrera decided then that other people needed to know about John and his wish.

In early June, the pastor returned with a video camera. He thought he’d show the video to his congregation, then maybe appeal for donations to benefit the church’s African missions and outreach. John sat down at the end of the dining room table and faced the camera.

“Hi, I’m John Halgrim. I’m 15 years old,” he began.

Doug Ballinger couldn’t believe what he was seeing when a friend at Summit showed him the video. He recently had taken his first mission trip to Nairobi. He and his son, J.D., who’d been doing African missions for years, formed a charity called Help the Least of These. They decided their next project needed to be a small orphanage. But they needed to raise the money. That’s when Mr. Ballinger saw John’s video.

“It was like God did a certain thing,” he said.

The video was shown at Summit in October 2007. More than $13,000 was collected the first weekend. As word spread, they gave more money.

Plans for a larger orphanage were put to paper, a project costing around $90,000. Sixty children would eventually live there.

By the time the video was shown at church that fall, John could hardly talk or see. Soon afterward, the boy’s grandmother, Jackie Streit, held out in front of him an artist’s rendering of the front of a building. In neat block letters across the top of the drawing was the name of the building: The John E. Halgrim Orphanage.

John died a few weeks later. At his funeral, Mr. Cabrera showed the video as a tribute to John and his wish. Mourners donated another $15,000 for his orphanage.

Mrs. Halgrim promised her son that she would be the shepherd of his wish. Last month she and her mother went to Nairobi to help move the children in.

At a ceremony to dedicate the building a few days later, she listened to people talk about John and his wish. When it was her turn to stand, she opened his journal and started reading aloud.

“Today was hard, but so have been the last couple of weeks,” she read. “But all you have to do is have faith and everything should be all right …”

cKatharine Houreld contributed to this story.

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