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Holiday event highlights true spirit of the season

Published: Friday, Nov. 29 2013 8:15 p.m. MST

Spectators came out to watch as the Temple Square lights are turned on for the first time for the 2013 season on Friday, Nov. 29, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Scores of families converged on the Gallivan Center and Temple Square Friday to watch the holiday lights illuminate downtown Salt Lake City.

For some families, the celebration was put into perspective by children fighting serious health issues.

To watch Benjamin McKenna, 15, maneuver around the Gallivan Center ice rink, you might never guess that he had a kidney transplant just seven months ago. Born with spina bifida — a permanently disabling birth defect — the Copper Hills High School sophomore was truly excited to race on the ice in his wheelchair “like a dog on linoleum.”

“I had quite a blast!” he exclaimed. “The whole rush of it was a lot of fun!”

McKenna was one of a number of children who were allowed to “skate” on the rink in their wheelchairs, either alone or with the help of a family member for those with exceptionally limited mobility.

I’m very proud of him,” his mother Kellie said. “He’s had a hell of a couple of years.”

They were all among the scores of children and families taking part in the annual Gallivan Center holiday lighting celebration in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Utah — the non-profit organization that grants wishes of children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions.

This was the first year the charity has partnered with the Gallivan Center for its holiday season kick-off celebration.

The ceremony culminated with the illumination of more than 350,000 lights, including a 60-foot Christmas tree. The event also included performances by David Osmond and the One Voice Choir, a non-profit organization consisting of 140 children ages 5 through 18, as well as the jolly old elf himself and even appearances by Chewbacca and a few Stars Wars stormtroopers.

The celebration drew about 200 families, according to Paula Axelrod, director of development for Make-A-Wish Utah.

Down the street about three blocks, even more holiday festivities were taking place as hundreds more families watched as the lights of Temple Square were illuminated at the same time as those of the Gallivan Center.

For the Make-A-Wish families, the holiday season has been put into perspective as their children have waged prolonged life-threatening health battles.

April Fitzgerald traveled down from Morgan to participate with her 6-year old daughter Zoe, who was born with a brain tumor. After nearly three years of cancer treatments, the family has come to value life more than ever.

“It definitely makes you appreciate your time and the simple stuff,” Fitzgerald explained. “Things that maybe were a big deal before are not a big deal anymore.”

Salt Lake area teens Madi Olson, Marie Johnson and Corey Miller were involved in an effort to raise money to help grant wishes for “wish kids.” They said the project has aided them in learning just how many people are not as fortunate and need help from those around them.

“I see how many people need more than I do, so when I help someone else and see the joy they get from it, it makes me happier than if I were to receive something myself,” Olson said.

“I’ve been very blessed in my life,” Johnson added. “Some people don’t always get dealt the best cards in life and knowing that you can give back and give them a good card makes you feel good.”

“It’s pretty satisfying,” Miller said. “It’s so easy to help someone who needs it.”

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com

Twitter: JasenLee1

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