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Make-A-Wish grants a cancer survivor’s wish to climb the Grand Teton

A person stands in climbing gear holding a sign that reads "Thank you Make-A-Wish."
Colin Wann
Rowan on the summit.

Back in 2020, Rowan Shea was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that forms in soft tissue. He was 11 years old. Make-A-Wish was not on the family's mind at all. But his mom Jodi said someone she knew reached out to her.

“He was on the Make-A-Wish board and wanted to make us aware that this was an opportunity for us to explore at some point when we were ready,” she recalled.

Make-A-Wish is a non-profit that works to grant the wishes of children with critical illnesses. Each state has its own chapter.

About two thirds of the way through chemo, the family finally felt ready. Rowan, Jodi and Rowan's dad Alec met with some Make-A-Wish folks to brainstorm ideas.

“I was really into the Cleveland Indians at the time,” Rowan said. “I really want[ed] to meet Francisco Lindor who was a shortstop at the time. So we were about to go, like, I think we were a week out, and COVID canceled it.”

Shortly after, Franciso Lindor got traded, so Rowan started thinking of different ideas. A second wish to meet a famous ski racer got denied and then finally he brought up a wish that he wasn’t sure that the organization would grant: climbing the Grand Teton.

 A kid uses climbing gear to scale a small cliff.
Colin Wann
Rowan practicing climbing with a harness.

“I think for the Make-A-Wish folks that was the first time anybody's asked for something like that,” said Alec. “I think that there was a little bit of a period of time where they had to confirm that we were physically able to do it. Not just Rowan, but us as well.”

Most wishes are granted when the kid is still going through chemo or soon after but, because COVID delayed things, Rowan was able to consider a more physical adventure.

“It didn't almost feel real because I think it's been a dream of mine ever since I first saw the Tetons,” said Rowan.

It finally got approved. Alec said all the amenities that Make-A-Wish provided – like the guides, training, food, lodging and travel expenses – made all the difference.

“So, I often think about all of the other families that they deal, with regardless of what the wish is, knowing that everything's taken care of, that's a really peaceful feeling,” said Alec.

Three people in hiking gear smile at the camera.
Colin Wann
The Shea family while climbing the Grand Teton. From left, Jodi, Rowan, Alec.

So when the Shea family woke up at two a.m. one day this summer at Lupine Meadows in Grand Teton National Park, they were able to focus on the goal at hand: summiting the Grand Teton.

They climbed the majority of the ascent together but 300 feet or so before the top, their guide said a tough decision needed to be made because weather was moving in quickly.

“[The guide] said, ‘If we're going to get to the summit, we need to pick up the pace,’” said Alec. “Jodi and I did not even hesitate. We both looked at Rowan and said, ‘Go.’ And he was like a bunny rabbit jumping into your driveway. I mean, take two hops, and he's gone.”

The Shea family lives in Laramie and is an outdoorsy family. Rowan’s entire childhood, they made a point to go out to the mountains to hike, ski and climb. But Alec and Jodi said this summit meant so much more.

“It was extremely emotional because it was almost this cap to this whole experience where we remember Rowan going through chemo and being at his weakest point and how we dealt with that,” said Alec. “And now we're watching this kid three years later, incredibly strong, who really had no trouble physically going up that mountain.”

“To have this opportunity as a family where we tackle something as a unit really was amazing validation that we came out okay. Certainly not unscarred. But okay and strong,” said Jodi.

Rowan’s parents said this experience helped Rowan grow so much mentally.

“He has this reserve tank now that he can tap into at any time when something gets tough. He can sit back and say, ‘Well, it's not chemo. It's not surgery. I can handle this.’ The climb on the Grand was the first time that I was actually able to watch him tap into that,” said Alec.

Rowan agreed with his dad.

“I think I have the same outlook on life like most 15-year-old boys do, but the little things, I have a different outlook on,” Rowan said.

“You know you're not invincible,” Jodi told her son and Rowan agreed.

They don’t plan to stop there. This January will be four years that Rowan's been in remission and the family plans to continue climbing mountains.

“We're doing Mount Moran this summer, which is a little bit smaller of a mountain. But a lot more, like, harness climbing, a lot harder pitches,” said Rowan. 

But they said every time they climb a mountain as a family, they’ll remember the climb that gave Rowan his wish come true.

A small family hugs next to a tent and a small camper
Colin Wann

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.

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