When giving to charity, it’s rare to come face to face with an individual whom you’re helping.
But such is the case with the Make-A-Wish Foundation — the organization that grants wishes to terminally ill children free of charge, where everyday people can see the individuals whose lives they’re affecting.
Package-pool builder Bob Sullivan was especially touched when he met one particular seven-year-old with leukemia. “Steven Spittle was a sweetheart,” says Sullivan, the president of 21st Century Pools & Spas in Vestal, N.Y. “He was very small, very frail. When he looked at you and smiled, your heart melted.”
Helping Steven get his wish cemented Sullivan’s dedication to Make-A-Wish, which he has assisted 10 times in the last decade.
“We’ve never said no to Make-A-Wish,” Sullivan says. “It’s such a good charity, and when you meet the kids, it’s unbelievable.”
When Make-A-Wish contacted Sullivan, it was already behind the eight ball: The company that originally promised an aboveground pool backed out, leaving the organization to scramble.
“They said, ‘We need a pool built, and we need it fast!’” Sullivan recounts.
But when Sullivan visited the family, he could tell that the boy didn’t really want an aboveground pool, but rather an inground vessel.
The organization doesn’t usually provide ingrounds, though, because they’re too expensive. While granters offer their goods and services at reduced prices, Make-A-Wish still has to pay the difference, with the average wish costing about $4,500.
“I couldn’t accept that,” Sullivan said. “I went out on a limb and said I could get tons of people to donate to this project.”
The builder made good on his promise, and a number of suppliers stepped up to the plate, including Latham Industries,Hayward Pool Products, PoolCorp, Imperial Pools and BioLab. Sullivan also coordinated with a fence installer and a landscaper, who each donated time and products.
All told, the pool was worth $25,000 to $30,000 on the open market, but the cost to Make-A-Wish was $2,500.
But bad news developed two days before groundbreaking. Steven went to the hospital for tests, only to find out that he had relapsed and couldn’t go home.
Undaunted, his older brother installed a web cam in the backyard so Steven could watch the construction process from a laptop in his hospital room. While not the same as being there, seeing the pool take shape boosted Steven’s spirits. “He loved watching it — and he loved the attention he got from people being excited for him,” says his mother, Barb Spittle.
He had something else to anticipate as well — Sullivan and his staff sent care packages once a week with pool toys and other items to remind Steven of the fun to come.
But after the pool was finished, Steven still couldn’t go home. His family kept up the web cam so the child could watch them play, even participating sometimes.
“One day I was at the hospital, and my sister was at my house to watch my other kids,” Barb Spittle says. “Everyone was out by the pool, and Steven actually said, ‘Call and tell them to push Aunt Gina in while I’m watching.’ And they did. Steven had a wonderful sense of humor. And he loved seeing other people enjoy things.”
A month after the pool was built, Steven took a turn for the worse, and the leukemia claimed his life. He never did get to swim, but the family remembers how watching the pool’s construction was a highlight for Steven.
“Today, it’s known by all family and friends as Steven’s pool,” Spittle says. “We have a garden back there with a couple of remembrance stones.”
In some respects, the experience broke Sullivan’s heart. But it also reminds him of what’s possible. “It makes me want to do things for kids,” he says. “I’m in the pool business, and I can help a sick kid. Who would have ever thought?”