It seems only fair that a boy who lives with challenges would issue one.
Owen Gustafson, who will turn 9 in August, has congenital muscular dystrophy and has never walked. Where his legs have failed, his keen mind and ability to delight those who meet him have more than taken up the slack. Compare that to his request — to meet President Obama, during an election year — and it didn’t sound so hard.
And in fact, the staff at A Special Wish Foundation’s Dayton chapter hardly blinked.
On July 16, Owen, his parents and brother Aiden traveled from their home in Yellow Springs to Music Hall in Cincinnati and spent 10 or 15 minutes of alone time with the leader of the free world — or, as 3½-year-old Aiden likes to call him, “Rock ’Bama.”
“I’m just happy that I didn’t have to go meet Justin Bieber,” says his mother, Trish, with a laugh. Among many highlights was a fist bump with the president. “I said I’d never wash my hand again,” says Owen.
“We have always been able to grant the wish of a child,” says David Seyer, executive director of the Dayton chapter of A Special Wish. “We have yet to be able to say no.
“We’re a bit of sunshine in the middle of a tornado.”
It was particularly poignant in that Owen’s wish was the Dayton chapter’s 1,500th granted. The logistics weren’t exactly like your standard Disney World wish. The foundation contacted the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown, who in turn worked through the White House and the president’s campaign apparatus, Obama for America.
Seyer said he got a call from Sen. Brown’s office at about 2:30 p.m. the Friday before the meeting.
“It was just really a shock on Friday, where (Brown staff member) Paul Bradley said ‘We’re going to make this happen. Can the family be in Cincinnati on Monday?’ And it’s like, ‘Absolutely!’ ” Seyer says.
Part of the process involves the child and family making three wishes. Visiting Washington, D.C., seeing the monuments and meeting the president was No. 1 for Owen; meeting actor Jack Black and going to a movie studio was second, and Disney World third.
The president’s visit to Cincinnati was a town-hall campaign stop in a state vital to his re-election, but Trish Gustafson said none of that was apparent in their meeting.
“He hugged us all, he was very engaging,” she says. “I was really impressed with his demeanor. He wasn’t pompous, he wasn’t egotistical. He seemed to really enjoy interacting with Owen and all of us genuinely.”
Owen’s interest in the president began, astonishingly, when Obama first began campaigning for president — when Owen was barely 4 years old. It ramped up as Obama ran against Sen. John McCain.
“He would ask me who Obama was and I would explain that he wanted to be our next president,” says Trish. “One day I came home from work, and he said, ‘You know what mom? If President Obama is going to be our president, that means he’s also going to be Senator McCain’s president as well.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, buddy.’”
The president exchanged gifts with the family, with Owen’s family remembering the first dog, Bo, with dog treats and also items for Michelle and the president’s two daughters. The family also was promised a tour of the White House when they visit Washington in August.
“He just appreciated that he had a fan,” Trish says. “Owen wrote him a card and it said ‘your pal.’ And he said, ‘Buddy, you are my pal.’”
“That day was pretty awesome for me, and I had some pretty cool stuff going on,” Owen says.
“I was very proud that he chose something so significant,” says Trish. “And just big picture for him, Owen is exceptionally bright and we really feel like he’ll go far in this world.” She says she’s talked with Owen about the challenges that Obama overcame. “ ‘And what are your challenges?’ ‘Well, my challenge is that I can’t walk.’ ‘But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many, many things that you can do.’ He’s not a kid with muscular dystrophy, he’s Owen.”