Riding For Wishes


Kelley Whitehead's enthusiasm lives on through ATV group


Kelley Whitehead wanted two things - a four wheeler and a trip to Disney World. Mention the words "Disney World" to most children and they will smile in anticipation of meeting favorite Disney characters viewed so avidly on video. It was the same for Kelley when she expressed a wish to visit the "Magic Kingdom". In May of 1988, Kelley, her mother Norma, father Butch, and brother Brad, made the trip. The following December Kelley died from the inoperable, malignant brain tumor she had been diagnosed with in March. Her dream-come-true trip was provided by the Make-A-Wish Foundation which grants children with terminal illnesses a special wish. 


"Kelley had first asked for a four-wheeler, but I said no, I'll get that for her," Butch Whitehead said. "I said they could do the trip to Disney World."


He bought the ATV and had the opportunity to take Kelley for rides before she became too sick to enjoy the excursions.


Whitehead kept riding ATVs after Kelley's death and helped start an ATV group in Muscle Shoals called the Shoals ATV Riders. The group has been in existance since March of 1998. The enthusiasm for ATV's that Kelley inspired will enable Butch to give back to the organization that granted his daughter one of her last wishes. Each summer, he will tow his ATV on an eight hour drive to Herbert Parish in Louisiana to take part in the Marengo Suicide Swamp Run. The event is a 17-mile loop through the lush trails (Muddy) of the parish.


Each year the proceeds from the ride have gone to the WishICould Foundation. "When I told my wife where I was going, she said, 'You're crazy,'" Whitehead said. "When I told her why I was going, she said 'Go.'"


The same scenario was repeated when Whitehead told several of his friends who regularly ride ATVs with him for fun. Whitehead said they thought he was crazy to drive so far to participate in a special run - even if it did involve lots of mud.


"But when I told them what the proceeds were going for, they said, 'You know, I'll think I'll go too,'" Whitehead said. As a result, 20 to 30 riders will accompany Whitehead to Louisiana. Their ATVs will be on trailers, hitched to their automobiles, for the drive to Louisiana. They will join other riders in Herbert Parish for the run, which drew a crowd of almost 1,200 in 1997.


Whitehead has numerous albums filled with photographs of grinning men, women, and teens, covered in mud, standing near or sitting on an equally mud-covered ATV. Part of the fun of the ride is to swish through large ponds of mud until the rider and vehicle are covered from head to toe. Whitehead said another part of the fun is to continue to share ATV fun with young people. He has several young friends who regularly ride with his group. "Doing things with youngsters is what keeps me going," he said.


"When the people associated (with the Louisiana event) found out I had used Make-A-Wish, they were just real excited," Whitehead said. "And I'm thrilled to have the chance to give something back after all they did for Kelley."


In 1997, the Louisiana event raised close to $20,000 to benefit the WishICould Foundation, which depends solely on outside contributions, according to board member Wayne Green. Green said he and his wife started the foundation in 1984. Their son, who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 6, recieved a wish from the Denham Springs, La. Chapter, Dreams Come True. "They asked us if we would start (a chapter)," Green said. "We've helped 48 kids since we started."


All of the "wishes come true" organizations are chapters of the Make-A-Wish Foundation which was started in 1980 in Phoenix, Ariz. There are about 82 chapters throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia, with 13 chapters in other nations. On Aug. 21, 1997, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted wish number 50,000, according to organization reports. The chapters are nonprofit, privately funded organizations. Green said the Louisana mud run is just one way his chapter raises the funds needed to grant wishes. He said an annual auction of large equipment also is a fund raiser for the chapter. He said childrens' wishes have included computers, satellite dishes, four-wheelers and a piano. "But most of them want to go to Disney World," Green said.


Norma Whitehead said the Dream Makers chapter heard about their daughters illness because one of Kelley's doctors contacted them. She said the family didn't have to pay "one cent" for the trip, which Kelley was able to fully enjoy before she became too weak.


"All we had to do was show our driver's license," Norma Whitehead said. "They gave us money for souvenirs, they gave us money for meals. You couldn't have asked for anything better."


"That's why when I heard who benefitted from this (mud run) I knew I had to go," Butch Whitehead said. "I thought this would be something I could do. But I just can't believe all the people who want to go, too. Most of them knew Kelley. When they heard what the proceeds were going for, that's all they needed to know." 


This is an article that was printed in the May 28, 1998 edition of the Shoals TimesDaily and was written by Sherhonda Allen. 

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