A year to the day after she buried her son, Joanie Halgrim rode in a minivan down a rocky dirt road not far from the airport in Nairobi, Kenya. Her stomach turned from the stench of rotting garbage and raw sewage mingling with exhaust fumes and the acrid smoke from sizzling meat peddled by street vendors.
The van stopped in the midst of some bleak gray apartment blocks, their balconies festooned with drying clothes flapping in the sun. She and the other travelers got out and entered an austere concrete-block building. It didn't look nearly finished, and yet in a week's time it would be a home to unwanted children, a place where they would sleep in neat rows of new wooden bunk beds upstairs.
As she walked around the dusty interior of the orphanage last month, deep feelings welled up inside Joanie. On the second floor, she found a balcony and walked outside to be by herself. And she started to cry.
She thought about the many times she had prayed for a miracle when her son, John, was sick.
She realized that maybe now she was getting it.
It was a year and a half before, in April 2007, when the two ladies came to the Halgrim house in Fort Myers, Fla.
"Think of me as your fairy godmother," one of them, Sue Fenger, told 15-year-old John Halgrim.
She was a volunteer from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the charity that helps dreams come true for children with life-threatening ailments. He was a boy with a time bomb in his brain.
"I've been thinking about this," John told her.
He had considered a trip to the Bahamas after hearing about a fancy resort called Atlantis, where guests get to swim with dolphins.
But as John's illness intensified, a wholly different idea came to mind.
Maybe the mission videos he'd seen at church planted the seed, the ones showing kids living in slums without running water. Or maybe it was that TV program about parentless African children being forced into slavery.
Whatever the reason, John became fixated on those children - and that place.
"I want to stop the hunger in Africa," he told the wish-granter. "I want to open an orphanage in Africa."
That, of course, wasn't what Fenger expected. Other kids ask to go to a movie premiere or even meet the president. That kind of wish can usually be granted. But this?
"John, that's a really big wish," she said. "I'm not sure Make-A-Wish can do a wish like that. Do you have a second wish?"
John got quiet. Then he made up his mind.
"Nope," he said, "that's my only wish."
He was, in so many ways, an ordinary kid. But he also believed steadfastly in God and faith and still, somehow, miracles. And he believed he would eventually be healed, that this thing in his brain was put there so he could do something important.
And this, he decided, was important.
The crushing headaches began more than a year before the wish-granters came calling, in early 2006, around the time John turned 14.
His mom insisted on an MRI. The radiologist who performed the procedure in March 2006 knew right away what he was looking at.
He showed John's parents the thing in the boy's head, a black spot in the middle of the image of his skull. Joanie thought it looked like a little bomb had exploded in there.
At first, John felt relieved. At least they knew what was wrong. Now, maybe, the headaches would stop.
Then he started to get scared. His Aunt Debbie, Joanie's older sister, had a brain tumor - and she died.
"Am I going to die?" he asked his mother.
"No," she tried assuring him. "You're not going to die."
But only a few weeks later, doctors at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis took John's parents into a room and delivered the unthinkable news: Their son had a malignant tumor on his brain stem that was impossible for surgeons to remove without damaging his brain or killing him.
Odds of survival were long. But John and his family believed he could beat it from the start. He spent six weeks at St. Jude with his mom for radiation and chemotherapy.
Before he got sick, John went to church most Sundays with his family but wasn't what you would call religious. He acknowledged that something happened to him when the cancer showed up.
"I learned I needed to change my life," he wrote in the journal he started keeping. "I learned I needed to live my life through God's eyes and not my own."
John thought about that at St. Jude when he learned that every kid with cancer gets a wish from the Make-A-Wish people. Back home in Fort Myers, he bugged his mother for months to call Make-A-Wish so he could tell someone about how he wanted to help the kids in Africa.
But his parents didn't want to hear about it. The tumor was still there, slowly killing their son, and they were desperate to find some way to stop it.
Calling Make-A-Wish seemed like giving up.
"John, let's worry about you," his mother would say.
The radiation and chemo seemed to keep the tumor in check as John started freshman year at Fort Myers High School.
Then one day in April 2007, a year after the initial diagnosis, John started seeing spots. Doctors determined that the tumor was growing again and spreading out in his brain.
Meanwhile, a doctor's referral had put John on the Make-A-Wish radar. And that's how it was that Fenger phoned and finally persuaded Joanie to let her come by to talk to John, who was eager to tell her about his wish.
As Fenger tried to figure out how the charity could help, John's health got worse. But he never complained or moped or got mad. When people told John they would pray for him, he'd tell them right back that he would be praying for them, too.
One of those people praying for him was a young pastor named Orlando Cabrera. John's uncle attended the Summit Church, where Cabrera preached. John went there sometimes, and he liked Cabrera.
One day Cabrera asked if he could come to the house to pray with the boy. During the visit, John explained how he wanted to help kids in Africa somehow.
Naturally, Cabrera wanted to know why. Why wouldn't John want to take a vacation or do something else fun?
John propped himself up on the couch so he could look at the 33-year-old pastor.
"Orlando, God didn't allow this to happen to me so I would get something out of it," he said.
Cabrera decided then that other people needed to know about this kid - and his wish.
In early June, the pastor returned with a video camera. He thought he'd show the video to his congregation, then maybe appeal for donations to benefit the church's African missions and outreach.
John, as bad as he felt by then, liked the idea, too. This could work.
He sat down at the end of the dining room table and faced the camera.
"Hi, I'm John Halgrim. I'm 15 years old," he began.
Doug Ballinger couldn't believe what he was seeing when a friend at Summit Church showed him the video. The 68-year-old retired businessman was moved by the boy's spiritual maturity and selflessness.
He also realized that he might be in a unique position to help.
Ballinger, who had moved to Fort Myers from Memphis, recently had taken his first mission trip to Nairobi. He and his son, J.D., who'd been doing African missions for years, formed a charity called Help the Least of These, the name taken from a verse in the book of Matthew.
Father and son had helped build a new church in a Nairobi slum. They decided their next project needed to be a small orphanage. So many children are parentless in a land where violence, starvation and disease kill most adults before they reach their mid-40s. But they needed to raise the money.
That's when Ballinger saw John's video. "It was like God did a certain thing," he said.
The video was shown during services at the Summit Church in October 2007. At the end, a pastor explained how the weekend's collection would be donated to Help the Least of These to build the orphanage and give John Halgrim his wish. More than $13,000 was collected that first weekend.
That was just the beginning. As word spread and more people found out about John's wish, they gave more money. Plans for a larger orphanage were put to paper, a project costing around $90,000. Sixty children would eventually live there.
John never got to see the video. By the time it was shown at church that fall, the tumor was stealing his ability to function. He could hardly talk or see .
But soon afterward, the boy's grandmother, Jackie Streit, sat down and held in front of him an artist's rendering of the front of a building.
Across the top of the drawing was the name of the building: The John E. Halgrim Orphanage.
John smiled. He lifted an arm and gave them all a thumbs-up.
A few weeks later, surrounded by his family at a Fort Myers hospital, John died.
At his funeral, Cabrera spoke and showed the video again as a tribute to the boy and his wish. Mourners donated another $15,000 for John's orphanage.
Joanie had promised her son that she would be the shepherd of his wish.
That's why she and her mother went to Nairobi with other volunteers last month to help move the kids in.
At a ceremony to dedicate the building a few days after they arrived, Joanie sat in a plastic lawn chair in the front row, cradling a small boy in her arms. She listened to people talk about John and his wish.
Then it was her turn to take the microphone, and she read from his journal:
" . . . All you have to do is have faith and everything should be all right . . . " *