Last Thursday, 44 sixth graders at Villa Maria Academy Lower School in Malvern swam as many laps as they could to send Rebecca O'Connell, a 12-year-old who uses a wheelchair, to swim with dolphins in Florida.
The sixth-grade class is part of the Fairy Godsisters program, which matches a child with a serious illness or physical disability to students in a school grade.
The students raise money to grant a wish to the child in need. Along the way, students build a relationship with the child that will teach lessons in compassion and empathy, said Suzanne Young, director of development at the Sunshine Foundation.
The Fairy Godsisters program is an offshoot of the Sunshine Foundation, a Feasterville organization that grants wishes to seriously ill, physically challenged and abused children.
Rebecca wants to go to Discovery Cove in Orlando because she loves dolphins and her classmates who had tried it had told her how much fun it was to swim with them.
The Fairy Godsisters program, which was launched in February, is granting its first wish to Rebecca. Young first contacted Villa Maria Academy Lower School to participate, partly because her daughter attends second grade there.
Other schools, such as Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, are also signing up for the program. On April 12, a similar Fairy Godbrothers program started at Malvern Prep, a private boys' school.
Rebecca has long hair that tends to fall over her soft, brown eyes. She suffers from spina bifida, a neurological disorder that affects the nerves in the spine. She uses a wheelchair to get around but stashes crutches in the back. Her mother, Karen, said Rebecca is learning to walk. Rebecca was born with clubfeet but has undergone surgery to correct them.
Karen has been raising Rebecca on her own since she was a baby. The family lives in Newtown Square with Karen's parents, while Rebecca attends sixth grade at Paxon Hollow Middle School in Broomall.
Although O'Connell attends another school, she is considered an honorary classmate at Villa Maria. During the swim-a-thon, the pool hall echoed loudly with cheers and clapping.
Laura Hall, 12, was sponsored by her grandparents, who were donating $2 for every lap she swam. Another student, Katherine Alabdulla, thought "it was great" that her class was helping Rebecca get her wish. She had told her 21-year-old cousin, who also has spina bifida, about the fund-raiser.
Midway through the swim-a-thon, the sixth graders gave Rebecca a cheer, which involved lots of raucous splashing, rhythmic clapping and chanting. Then, her mother lowered Rebecca into the pool so she could go swimming with her "godsisters."
Then, Sister Mary Ellen Tennity, the principal, announced that Rebecca was going to Florida. In addition to the funds already raised in the swim-a-thon, Jim White, a local businessman, agreed to supplement the money for the $4,000 goal. Young said that pledge money was still rolling in.
"The dolphins are waiting. Your dreams have come true," said Sister Stephen Anne Rodriguez, the vice principal.
Rebecca's mouth dropped open. "I'm so excited," she said with a warm smile. She and her mother plan on heading to Discovery Cove in Orlando in October.
She capped off the swim-a-thon by doing a handstand in the pool, her feet pointing out of the water.
For more information on the program, call 215-396-4770 or go to www.sunshinefoundation.org.