Elsa Reddig, 5, and her four brothers and sister were excited just to see Montana Highway Patrol cars when they pulled into Pizza Hut for lunch on Wednesday with their parents, Elden and Sarah Reddig of Kalispell.
Once inside, the troopers invited them all to lunch and made Elsa’s dream come true — a dream to go to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.
“She wanted to ride in an airplane and go see a big fish,” Sarah said.
Early Saturday morning, the family takes off from Missoula to fly to Orlando where they will stay at Give Kids the World Village, a resort designed to serve ill children and their families as they visit surrounding parks such as Sea World. They will return home to Kalispell the following Saturday.
Montana Hope Project, founded by the Association of Montana Troopers, has granted nearly 350 wishes since 1984 to critically ill children such as Elsa, who was born with Prader-Willi Syndrome.
“She’s missing a piece of chromosome 15,” Sarah said. “It makes her have an insatiable appetite. It’s lifelong.”
Compounding the agony of unending hunger, victims of Prader-Willi have no metabolism and no muscle tone to burn the calories they crave. Sarah said the syndrome drives Elsa to take food anywhere and everywhere that she can.
She said that they have taught Elsa about her disorder but she still can’t resist food left within her grasp.
“It’s just a constant, constant, constant battle,” she said. “If not watched, they can get so obese that that creates all the other problems. If she gets a hold of tons of food and starts eating, she has slow stomach emptying and her stomach could just burst and kill her.”
Because of her low muscle tone, Elsa didn’t walk until she was 3. She also had scoliosis (curved spine) that required her to wear a cast or a brace on her back for the last two years.
“She just hit a milestone,” Sarah said. “She just graduated to only having to wear the brace at night.”
Sarah said that she learned about the Montana Hope Project from one of Elsa’s physical therapists. At the time, her daughter wasn’t yet talking, so she decided to wait to apply.
She and Elden decided this spring was a good time based on the usual progression of the syndrome.
“Between the age of 5 and 7 is when behavior issues and food issues start to escalate for the rest of their life,” Sarah said. “We wanted to do it now when it’s not so much of her life focused on food. She’s still easily distracted away from food.”
Now that her daughter speaks, her mother was able to ask her what she would like to do. Sarah said that Elsa had surgery on the back of her throat to make her soft palate longer, which improved her speech tremendously.
She struggled with the word fish as she worked with her therapist.
“So, at the time, she was very much into fish,” Sarah said. “So, she wanted to go riding on the airplane and go see a big fish. She would reach to the ceiling saying ‘super big fish.’”
The children had no idea the trip was impending when Sarah and Elden made arrangements to take them to lunch on Wednesday. They thought it was just a coincidence when the Montana troopers invited them to join them for lunch.
Sgt. Steve Lavin later came in with balloons and granted Elsa’s wish to go to SeaWorld. The trip was left up to the Reddigs.
“The kids don’t even know what Disney World is. We don’t have a television,” she said. “They’re very excited about SeaWorld and LEGOLAND and the beach. I don’t want to do too much.”
The children range from 1 to almost 10. Those who are old enough attend East Evergreen Elementary School.
Sarah stays at home with the children while Elden works at Plum Creek MDF in Columbia Falls. The family hopes to make happy memories for Elsa to recall as she lives with the challenges of Prader-Willi Syndrome.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” Sarah said.
People who would like to learn more about the program may visit www.montanahope.org.
Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.